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Pakistan's Imran Khan faces a political showdown — without the army for support

Imran Khan, prime minister of Pakistan, arrives for the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the Beijing National Stadium, last month.
Carl Court
Getty Images
Imran Khan, prime minister of Pakistan, arrives for the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the Beijing National Stadium, last month.

ISLAMABAD – It wasn't long ago that many in Pakistan thought Imran Khan, the cricket star-turned-politician, might defy the odds to become the only prime minister in recent history to actually serve a full term.

After all, he was relatively popular. And more importantly, he enjoyed the firm support of the military, which many say helped catapult him to power in 2018.

But Khan's fortunes have rapidly shifted. The military appears to have withdrawn support and defections within the ranks of Khan's own party, known as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, mean that a no-confidence move in parliament planned to get underway on Monday, looks like it has a good chance to succeed.

The military backs away from Khan

Khan's shaky grasp on power has made for more than the usual amount of messy politics in Pakistan. The current crisis erupted after the military appeared to suddenly back away from him, signaling to the opposition that it was open season on the prime minister.

"The opposition now has free rein to go after Khan," says Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Even Khan's own coalition partners are making use of the chaos to try to leverage better deals.

Meanwhile, violence is feared because opposition parties are planning their own mass rally to coincide with Monday's start of debate on the no confidence motion. In anticipation of trouble, security forces have moved razor wire across major roads. Analysts fear that if the chaos escalates, the military could step in to restore order, as it has done so many times before in Pakistan's 75-year history.

The turmoil comes as Pakistan negotiates with the International Monetary Fund to release a desperately needed next tranche of a $6 billion bail out package.

"History tells us what happens when there are no resolutions," said Najam Sethi, a journalist and editor of The Friday Times. If "the opposition and the government continue to slug it out," Sethi said, "and you're facing financial bankruptcy and now you have political bankruptcy," he continued, "that's when the military steps in directly."

Pandemic-linked inflation is pushing up the price of food and fuel. And it's expected to worsen as shortages of fertilizer for crops could cut wheat yields, just as global prices skyrocket amid the Russian invasion.

"Inflation has become unbearable. What can people do, except cry, or curse him?" mechanic Muhammad Zubair, 35, who lives in the capital, Islamabad, says of the prime minister.

There are troubles with the Taliban next door

Khan's troubles are also closely tied to events across the country's western border. The Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan in August underscored his sympathy for the group, as he told an audience that the regime change meant that Afghans had "broken the shackles of slavery."The remarks only served to fray already fraught relations with Washington.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, meet at the Kremlin in Moscow, on February 24 this year, the same day that Russian forces invaded Ukraine.
Anadolu Agency / Kremlin Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Kremlin Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, meet at the Kremlin in Moscow, on February 24 this year, the same day that Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

Khan also seems to have infuriated some in the military with his foreign policy decisions, such as finding himself in Moscow meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the very day the invasion of Ukraine began.

"The relationship started to see some cracks," Afzal says.

For others who support Khan, he is seen as a straight-talker who has helped the poor through instituting health insurance schemes and cash payments. He is contrasted with many other Pakistani political leaders who are widely viewed as corrupt.

"He is not like thieves who are making money for themselves and their children. Imran Khan cares about the entire country," Fazl-e-Wadood, a 28-year-old laborer with seven children in Islamabad, says, adding that his support for Khan is so strong that he would "even sacrifice my life" for the prime minister.

Kahn has attracted sympathy too from Pakistanis tired of their lawmakers jumping ship as political winds shift. It is so common that one newspaper editorial even dubbed Pakistan a "lotacracy" playing on the word "lota" – a vessel used by Pakistanis to wash themselves after using the toilet. The word can also be used as to mean a political turncoat.

Political instability, although not uncommon in Pakistan, is always cause for concern in the nuclear-armed nation of more than 220 million people, which has been ruled by generals for nearly half its history.

In the latest case of Khan, the military's apparent abandonment of the prime minister is all the more stark, given that he's widely seen as beholden to the army for his present position.

Ahead of the 2018 election, Amnesty International described a crackdown on media and analysts said was a campaign to beat down allies of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif himself was disqualified from politics in 2017, following a corruption scandal surrounding his family.

Essentially, the military "rigged the elections to bring Imran Khan to power," says the journalist Sethi.

Khan's PTI denies such claims, pointing to the party's widespread popularity among the country's conservative middle class.

But even after the polls, when Khan was unable to form a majority government, Sethi and others say the military nudged smaller parties into a supporting coalition. In fact, Khan's government was so closely intertwined with the military that it was described by many as "hybrid rule," says Zahid Hussain, an author and columnist for the English daily Dawn. "The military was part of the power arrangement which has worked for the last three and a half years."

Khan is perceived by many as mismanaging the economy, as well as rule of Pakistan's most populous Punjab province, where he appointed a political nobody as chief minister.

He was insulated by the army's support. But then, Sethi and other analysts say, the military began distancing itself from Khan amid a series of perceived missteps.

Sharif's tirade "crossed the Rubicon"

A turning point was a tirade by Sharif, the disqualified prime minister who remains one of Pakistan's most popular political figures. He boldly called out the military by name — accusing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and the former former head of Pakistan's powerful intelligence service, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, of engineering Khan's rise to power.

"Who is responsible for the destructiveness of this incompetent government of Imran?" asked Sharif in a speech aired in October 2020.

Sethi describes Sharif's speech as having "crossed the Rubicon," in a country where officials and media only refer to the military's role in politics indirectly and euphemistically, using code such as "the establishment," "invisible hands," and even "the department of agriculture."

"Everybody, frankly, was shocked," Sethi says of Sharif's public shaming. "That's when I think the military began to squirm."

Tensions bubbled to the surface after reports emerged that Khan refused for weeks to sign off on a transfer for Hameed, the intelligence chief. The Brookings Institution's Afzal says the move was "seen as [Khan] trying to assert his power as prime minister."

"Many of us wondered at that point, what it would cost him," she says. "It was a matter of embarrassment for the military."

Because the military has long insisted that it doesn't interfere in politics, just how it signaled its loss of faith in Khan isn't clear, but the army was "forced to pull itself out of the fray," says Hussain, the columnist and author.

The military claims to be neutral

Khan himself alluded to the army's reversal or "neutrality" as it is referred to in Pakistan, when the prime minister raged at a rally this week: "When there is a battle between good and evil, then God asks us not to be neutral. Only animals are neutral."

The army's stance appears to have ignited momentum for the three largest opposition parties to try to make a decisive move against Khan. They are already thought to have 162 votes in support of the no confidence motion, and the anti-Khan forces think they can peel away enough of his own lawmakers to reach the necessary 172.

About a dozen of Khan's own lawmakers have already rebelled against him, and may vote with the opposition.

Khan's allies have appealed to the Supreme Court, which is now considering whether a lawmaker can defy their own party's instructions.

Right now, Khan is betting heavy on a rally set for Sunday. "I want the entire nation to come out," he said in a special video message. Analysts say he hopes to attract enough people to intimidate wavering lawmakers and coalition allies.

"The government is trying to subvert the whole process by calling their supporters to march on Islamabad and to protest during the session, which means they are threatening the assembly," says Hussain. "All that has created a very, very tricky situation."

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Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
Abdul Sattar