The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Are Imran Khan’s Days as Pakistan’s Prime Minister Numbered?

The PTI government’s poor performance has apparently alienated even Pakistan’s kingmakers: the military.

Daud Khattak
Are Imran Khan’s Days as Pakistan’s Prime Minister Numbered?
Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is under criticism from the media for what is being called his government’s failure to make visible progress on the economic and political fronts as well as decisively confront the COVID-19 pandemic.

Khan was once Pakistan’s most popular man and believed to be a messiah, able to steer the country out of myriad problems ranging from economic mismanagement to corruption, terrorism, and a darkened international image. While in the opposition, Khan spoke from a very high moral pedestal; now it seems his idealism raised expectations beyond his capacity.

His government’s performance during the past 20 months has not only disenchanted many of his diehard supporters in the media and his voters, particularly among the middle class and the youth, but also to some extent alienated the decision makers in the military, Pakistan’s most powerful institution, which is always seen as a silent and invisible actor in throning and de-throning leaders and governments in Pakistan.

COVID-19 and Khan Government’s Response

On April 13, while hearing a suo moto case, Pakistan’s Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed remarked that “there is no betterment in the federal government’s performance to deal with the outbreak.”

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The remarks from Pakistan’s top judge came hard on the heels of a halfhearted response by the government to lock down cities and extend immediate assistance to those in need.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December last year. In Pakistan, the first COVID-19 case was confirmed on February 26. Since then, Pakistan’s central government has failed to announce a clear strategy on whether the country is going into a lockdown or staying open. Rather, the response to one of the most important issues in recent decades remained confused.

Last week, the Khan government extended the “lockdown” for another two weeks but allowed congregational prayers at mosques and the opening of certain shops and businesses, along with the construction industry.

Such half measures gave a majority of Pakistanis, who were already in a state of disbelief about the virus and were reluctant to accept the pandemic as a real and genuine threat, an excuse to flout the ban. Even those who had adopted the precautionary measures are in a state of confusion as to whether to observe a lockdown or not.

A Sugar Scandal

As the coronavirus pandemic is taking its toll on human life in Pakistan and the rest of the world, the finding of an investigative report was leaked to the media. The report alleged the involvement of Khan’s key associates and cabinet members in creating an artificial sugar shortage crisis in the country last year, and in the process earning themselves huge sums of money.

For decades, Imran Khan built his reputation as an anti-graft campaigner who used to accuse his opponents of looting the country’s wealth and sending the money abroad. The sugar scandal has already struck a blow to Khan’s reputation at a time when his government is on the backfoot for its sluggish response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Although the COVID-19 emergency diverted attention from politics for a while, rumors are that Khan’s key backers in the military establishment are also fed up with his style of government and his performance.

Does That Mean a Change Is in the Offing?

When Pakistani opposition parliamentarians repeatedly used the term “selected prime minister” soon after Khan’s swearing in, they knew very well who they were pointing to as the “selectors.” Obviously, they were referring to the country’s powerful military and its intelligence agencies.

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Much has been written as to how Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf or Justice Movement party was propped up by placing key leaders of the two major opposition parties – the Pakistan Muslim League of former premier Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan People’s Party of the late Benazir Bhutto, which is now co-chaired by her son Bilawal and her widower Asif Ali Zardari – behind bars before and during the July 2018 parliamentary elections.

One simple reason for Khan’s elevation to the top was to block the two major parties from entering into power. The opposition leadership had learned a hard lesson about the need for resolving their differences and the problems faced by the country in light of the constitution.

Another possible reason was Khan’s charisma and his “Mr. Clean” image. Altogether the purpose was to help overcome corruption, boost the economy by bringing in international investment, and help improve Pakistan’s international image, which had been bitterly affected by its pro-Taliban leanings in the post-9/11 war against terrorism.

The emergence of democratic norms and a culture of political tolerance in Pakistani politics from 2008 to 2018 proved a warning signal for the undemocratic forces. It was during this period that the country’s parliament approved the 18th amendment, which, apart from shifting powers from the center to the federating units, also curtailed the authority of the president to dissolve the assemblies. The bill also reversed many changes introduced by military rulers to weaken the democratic process.

Apparently, democracy was strengthened in Pakistan and two elected governments – albeit not the originally elected prime ministers — successively completed their five-year terms without interruption from 2008 to 2018 for the first time in the history of Pakistan.

But Imran Khan’s election once again pushed Pakistan back into the era of the 1990s by opening the floodgates of mudslinging and inviting military intervention.

Both the military and Khan, in the first year of his government, used to proudly repeat the mantra of being on the “same page” which means there is no trouble between the two. However, 20 months on the “same page” mantra has almost disappeared from national press coverage.

What Next?

It is generally believed that the powerful circles are disenchanted with Khan’s performance but seem to be in a fix as how to undo what has been done for several reasons.

In the first place, the opposition parties are not willing to support any unconstitutional step that may show the door to the prime minister or oust his government. There are two reasons for the opposition’s unwillingness.

First, the political maturity attained over the past two decades is stopping the leadership of the two major opposition parties – People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz – from backing an unconstitutional step, even if the victim is a staunch opponent like Imran Khan.

Second, the top leadership of the two major opposition parties – Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari – don’t have pleasant memories of dealing with the military during their time as prime minister and president respectively. They must be reluctant to allow their parties to save face for the establishment in doing away with their handpicked man.

Half of Imran Khan’s failures are credited to the military, mainly because of the widespread perception that it was the military that paved his way to electoral victory.

Khan’s popularity among youth may also be a serious concern. While his popularity graph is apparently on the decline, his army of blind followers would not silently absorb his premature removal from power.

The military has already lost a considerable amount of support and sympathy in its main recruiting land of Punjab by sidelining Nawaz Sharif, an ethnic Punjabi and the most popular leader in his native Punjab province. This is no time to pick a dispute with another popular man and his support base.

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Besides losing favor with the military and his government’s not-so-praiseworthy performance on the economic and good governance fronts, Khan is also facing a challenge from inside his own party. Groups with loyalties to subleaders may rock the boat while seeing their interests at stake. Pakistan will have to hold its breath until the forensic investigation report, expected to be released on April 25. Whose and how many heads roll will be a crucial issue.

In the meantime, while the COVID-19 situation has further exposed the weaknesses in the government performance and thus further widened the gap in the former “same page” narrative, it also, apparently, has averted the possibility of any political change for the next several months.