A maverick journey to the pinnacle of Pakistani politics has ended in a firestorm of controversy and public recrimination.
Imran Khan, a self-described anti-politician, is back in the political wilderness.
Abandoned by coalition allies, alienated from the military leadership and faced with an exodus of parliamentarians from the party he founded, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Khan remains defiant and unbowed.
But a path back to power will not be easy.
Khan is the 19th Pakistani prime minister to have failed to complete his term, continuing an unbroken trend since the country’s independence in 1947. He is, however, the first prime minister to have been defeated in a parliamentary vote of no confidence.
Fawad Chaudhry, the now former information minister and one of Khan’s closest political advisers, said of his boss: “Imran Khan’s decision-making can be rash. His idealism often beats his rationality. In one way, that’s great, but in other ways, it’s not so good.”
Chaudhry was describing the tumultuous arc of Khan’s 43 months as prime minister, particularly the final chaotic stretch.
“His plus point and his negative point is that he’s not a politician. He has an impetus to do untraditional things,” Chaudhry said.
Controversy dogged Khan’s term from the beginning to the end, with the opposition alleging the military rigged the 2018 general election to favour Khan, and PTI supporters now alleging an opposition-military alliance to remove him.
Another close Khan aide, Faisal Sultan, a special assistant to the prime minister and head of the country’s COVID task force, claimed Khan’s term had ended just as positive results had begun to appear in governance and the economy.
“This was a government that did not want the status quo, had an ambitious agenda. But it was a coalition government and the opposition joined up. Unfortunately, just as the flywheel of reforms and results had begun to move, the end came,” Sultan said.
Rise of Khan
An iconic cricketer who captained the national team to its first World Cup in 1992, public affection for Khan deepened as he criss-crossed the country fundraising for a cancer hospital, the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, which Khan founded in memory of his mother.
The allure of politics quickly won over his cricketing retirement, with Khan founding the PTI in 1996. Styled as a movement for justice and good governance, the PTI struggled to gain electoral traction. Between 1997 and 2008, the PTI won just one seat, Khan’s own.
Then came the so-called political tsunami in 2011. Khan drew a huge crowd to a rally in Lahore, decrying the country’s political leadership and seeking to distance Pakistan from the US-led war in Afghanistan. Political power finally appeared to be a possibility.
Fahd Husain, a columnist for news outlet Dawn, said of Khan’s political breakthrough: “Imran Khan’s political rise was fuelled by a growing disillusionment of a large segment of the urban middle class with the traditional politics of PML-N [Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz] and PPP [Pakistan People’s Party]. The greater their disgust with stories of corruption and misgovernance, the more they gravitated towards the unsullied persona of Khan.”
But the PTI stumbled badly in the 2013 general election, finishing a distant third to the PML-N. In the first-past-the-post parliamentary system in Pakistan, Khan had failed to attract sufficient winning candidates and did not have the necessary party organisation.
The bruising loss led Khan to a Faustian bargain. Bidding to win the next election, Khan threw open the PTI’s doors to so-called ‘electables’ – traditional constituency politicians who have mastered patronage politics, many of whom Khan had long criticised.
Khan also aligned himself more closely with the country’s powerful military. It proved a winning formula.
In 2018, the PTI won the most seats in the National Assembly and Khan became prime minister at the head of a coalition government.
Columnist Husain said of Khan’s 2018 victory: “The organic support of a disillusioned electorate was buttressed by the inorganic support of the establishment which helped PTI garner precious electables in order to bag enough seats. The combination of organic and inorganic support catapulted Khan to power in the 2018 elections.”
But, months away from Khan’s fifth year as prime minister, the formula unravelled. Abandoned by the electables and alienated from the military leadership, Khan’s thin coalition majority turned into a parliamentary majority for the opposition. His term as prime minister was over.
Removed prime ministers have previously returned in Pakistan.
Benazir Bhutto of the PPP was re-elected in 1993 and Nawaz Sharif, leader of the PML-N, was elected prime minister a third time in 2013. So while Khan is once again on the outside looking in, in the murky world of Pakistani politics, where the military’s political preferences have swung wildly in the past, his defeat might only be temporary.
A potential comeback would be rooted in a febrile political base, seemingly more charged than ever after Khan’s exit.
“He’s an honest man,” said Fareshteh Gati, a longtime Khan supporter in Karachi.
“When an entire opposition and the bureaucracy and the powers-that-be band against one man, but every other person you know is with him, he must be doing something right. He will fight to come back. I will continue to support,” he said.
Supporters such as Gati were key to Khan breaking up the two-party dominance of the PPP and PML-N and are likely to keep the PTI as one of the three-largest parties in the country.
In Pakistan’s parliamentary system and a fragmented Pakistani electorate, the winds of public opinion and the whims of a future military leadership could quickly change in Khan’s favour.
Husain assessed the possibility of a Khan return: “Reckless decisions and a confrontational approach to politics, mixed with a healthy dose of hubris, has brought the PTI government to an ignominious end. It can still salvage its electoral prospects if it learns from its mistakes and corrects course.”
But Khan loyalists such as Chaudhry, the former information minister, are already predicting a return.
“Politically, he’s very sharp. Yes, sometimes he doesn’t care about the consequences, but the people love him.”