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Can Imran Khan Stay in Power?

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The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Can Imran Khan Stay in Power?

The “minus one” narrative is gaining traction, but it would be difficult to replace Khan as prime minister.

Pakistan’s political landscape is abuzz with rumors about the future of Prime Minister Imran Khan, once the country’s most popular man. Khan’s passionate pre-July 2018 diatribes against the political elites had endeared him to the country’s powerful military establishment, besides earning him a messiah-like standing in the eyes of a vast majority of middle-class Pakistanis.

Twenty-two months in government, however, brought Khan face-to-face with an anti-climax. It has proven impossible to live up to the tall expectations that he had stacked over the years by speaking from high moral grounds about corruption, mismanagement, unemployment, foreign debts, a fledgling economy, and a bad international image.

The once widely held “same page” mantra, which means the elected government enjoys the backing of the military generals, has now been replaced by the notorious “minus one” formula, which explains the generals’ displeasure with the “one” on top of the list. There are rumors of a plan to replace Khan with someone else through an in-house initiative.

Khan’s June 30 speech to the National Assembly, Pakistan’s lower house, and his rare June 28 dinner for party members and coalition partners provided credence to the “minus one” chatter.

“They don’t know that even if minus one happens, the others will not spare them,” the Pakistani prime minister roared in the parliament, without elaborating on whom he meant by “they” and “the others.”

Khan’s two decades of political struggle, backed by his cricketing career and his welfare work in constructing the country’s first state-of-the-art cancer hospital, won him huge support among the masses. However, his July 2018 election victory against his powerful opponents was attributed to the goodwill of the military establishment, also referred to as the “selectors,” and the judiciary.

After winning power, Khan was expected to launch a relentless crusade against financial corruption by bringing the so-called looted money back into the national exchequer, ensuring good governance, stabilizing the economy, and improving the country’s international image, which was bitterly affected by Pakistan’s support for local and international jihadists.

However, Khan’s anti-corruption crusade mostly remained focused at jailing opposition politicians, particularly those belonging to the Pakistan Muslim League of former premier Nawaz Sharif. This not only distracted Khan and his government from focusing on other serious issues such as good governance, but also created a negative environment for possible foreign investment.

His anti-corruption claims received a further blow as his own party stalwarts and cabinet members were accused of taking part in a scheme to earn huge profits by creating artificial shortages of wheat flour and sugar and selling the commodities at high prices in the local market, besides getting governmental subsidies on exports.

Khan’s promise of improving the economy also did not work out well. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in April this year projected Pakistan’s economy to shrink by 1.5 percent during the current fiscal year. Although the COVID-19 pandemic played an obvious role in that forecast, pre-pandemic growth in FY2019 was just 3.3 percent. According to the country’s Finance Ministry, the revenue shortfall and increase in public spending has taken the fiscal deficit from the initial target of 7.5 percent of GDP to 9.4 percent.

There were also hopes for Pakistan’s international image and the country’s relations with its next-door neighbor and arch-rival India to improve. Here again, the Khan government never achieved the benchmarks. Rather, some of Khan’s statements, particularly his June 26 statement calling al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden a “martyr,” further brought Pakistan’s position vis-à-vis global jihadists under question on the international front.

Despite his all-out efforts, Khan’s government so far could not achieve any breakthrough with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi to normalize relations. Border skirmishes and exchanges of cross-border firing have almost become a routine between the two countries.

Now the Khan government’s inconsistent response to the coronavirus pandemic is seen as his latest failure, both by his opponents and by a majority of the independent analysts. The COVID-19 fumbling, many analysts believe, is one of the key reasons behind the row between Khan and his uniformed backers.

The rapid increase in COVID-19 cases and the rising number of deaths is attributed to Khan’s indecisiveness about imposing a lockdown in the country. While much of the rest of the world strictly implemented lockdowns to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, Pakistan’s government flip-flopped from no lockdown to a lockdown to a smart lockdown. The dilly-dallying gave the wrong messages to a public already suffering from disbelief about the reality of the virus, which further worsened the situation.

Now that the cat has already been let out of the bag, there are some key questions about whether Khan will stay in power for the remaining three years of his five-year term, and the nature of his relations with the military establishment and the opposition parties.

One settled fact about Pakistani politics is that no civilian government, however powerful it might be, can stay in power for long if the military establishment turns against it.

In Khan’s case, the generals may not be happy with his government’s performance and their “selection,” but they have not reached the point of saying “enough is enough.” To put it differently, they have not been able to find a suitable choice to replace him. Thus, Khan may likely continue to stay in his seat, despite no longer being on the proverbial “same page” with the powers that be.

The establishment, in fact, seems to be in a bind when it comes to keep Khan floating on the waves or letting him sink.

In the first scenario, every failure of Khan’s government will be credited to the military, as a majority of Pakistanis in general (and the well-informed in particular) believe that it was the generals who shouldered Khan’s election victory in July 2018. Hence, Khan’s continuation in power will continue to raise questions about the military role. Every misstep by his government will be seen as the failure of the military establishment, who are believed to have backed Khan’s Justice Movement from behind the scenes.

However, letting him go down is an even more serious risk from the military’s point of view. Khan’s poor performance has once again increased public support for the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the two mainstream opposition parties that intermittently ruled the country from 1988, but whose leadership is seen as an anathema by the military top brass. Khan’s premature removal will benefit the two parties, which the military does not see as a viable choice.

The opposition parties are also not ready to force Imran Khan out of power through an in-house change or street protests. Khan’s coalition government barely enjoys a majority in the 342-member lower house of parliament following the separation of one of its allies, the Balochistan National Party (BNP). Another ally, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, has also expressed its unhappiness with Imran Khan.

Both the PML-N’s and the PPP’s leadership turned down Khan’s invitation for the June 28 dinner. Yet the opposition parties are suffering from differences and divisions when it comes to Khan’s removal and their future relationship with the military establishment.

By not acting against Khan’s government, the hawks among the opposition parties want to teach a lesson to the military establishment so that the generals stop their political engineering and behind-the-scenes political games once and for all.

The third and most important aspect of Khan being in or out of power is related to his own party. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf minus Imran Khan may not stay united even for a few weeks, let alone months and years.

Divisions and factions among the party’s rank and file and the top leadership are an open secret now. In a recent cabinet meeting, one minister accused his two senior cabinet colleagues of fixing their eyes on the prime minister seat.

Khan is the kingpin that glues the party and the coalition government together. Take him out and both the coalition and the PTI will disperse within weeks. If and when push comes to shove on part of the military establishment, analysts believe, the most viable option will be the formation of a consensus national government instead of Khan’s removal alone.

But until we reach that point, Khan can relax in his seat — mainly because his opponents don’t have the will and his erstwhile backers don’t have a good option to replace or remove him.