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Bani Gala, a ritzy suburb of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, is best known for its lakefront and picnic lawns. In recent weeks, however, crowds have converged around something else: the sprawling estate of Imran Khan, Pakistan’s cricketer-turned-politician who was ousted as prime minister in a no-confidence vote in April.
Far from fading into obscurity, the 69-year-old has enjoyed a political rebirth. In rallies across the country, Khan has led a fiery campaign to denounce the “cabal of crooks” that he alleges took over as part of a US-backed conspiracy, without evidence. After his party won a series of local polls, he demanded new elections immediately. “Every effort has been made to crush [us] but we did not sit silently,” Khan said last month.
At a time of rampant inflation and IMF-induced austerity, Khan’s message has struck a chord. “Imran Khan ensured that the cost of living in Pakistan was still more affordable, whereas his successors have only made life very miserable for everyone,” said Naseem Malik, a maths teacher who had joined the crowds on the approach to the former prime minister’s house. Khan is “the only hope for economic justice in Pakistan”, he added.
The improvement in fortunes for Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party has emerged as one of the biggest unknowns for investors and policymakers at a critical moment for Pakistan’s economy. His successor, Shehbaz Sharif, has portrayed himself as the responsible antidote to Khan’s reckless populism. But with elections to be held by next year, convincing voters may be harder.
The magnitude of Sharif’s task has been amplified by catastrophic flooding across large swaths of Pakistan that has killed more than 1,100 people and displaced hundreds of thousands. Officials warn that the disaster may imperil the country’s economic recovery.
Sharif tries to fix Pakistan’s myriad problems
“[Khan] doesn’t play by the rules. He doesn’t accept the rules”, said Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US. “In that sense, any government would find it pretty difficult to deal with an opponent like that.
” Since coming to office, Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (N) party have set about putting out fires they say Khan started. The government this week revived a long-stalled IMF programme that was negotiated under the PTI in 2019, reversing populist fuel subsidies introduced by Khan and securing a $1.1bn bailout they say helped narrowly avert default.
The IMF programme “will restore the confidence of the international markets and investors in Pakistan”, said Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s planning minister. “Four months ago, people were betting that we were going to become the next Sri Lanka. Now nobody is.
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” Shehbaz Sharif’s government was forced to roll back populist fuel subsidies introduced by Imran Khan in order to secure a $1.1bn IMF bailout, which it hopes will right the economy © Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Sharif has also tried to improve ties with governments including the US and EU, which were the objects of Khan’s broadsides against alleged western meddling. The prime minister has attempted to smooth relations with Pakistan’s powerful military, as well, which Khan’s supporters have challenged.
“Part of our economic problem is not just what [Khan] has left behind but the commitment to political chaos he has made until he’s back in political power,” said climate change minister Sherry Rehman. “An unstable system will struggle to grow. But that doesn’t matter to him. It’s his ego before Pakistan’s stability.
Khan’s supporters maintain their allegiance
For Khan’s supporters, the efforts to discredit him reek of desperation. “Unlike every other politician, Imran Khan has a personal bond with the people of Pakistan,” said Asad Umar, a PTI leader. “Clearly, the PTI is politically resurgent and Imran Khan’s popularity is almost certainly at the highest level he has ever had.”
Khan first achieved fame as Pakistan’s celebrity cricket captain in the 1980s. He rose in politics thanks in part to his relentless critiques of the alleged venality of political dynasties such as the Bhuttos of the Pakistan People’s party, part of the ruling coalition, or Shehbaz Sharif’s brother Nawaz, who was ousted as prime minister in 2017 over a corruption scandal. Both families claim the allegations against them are politically motivated.
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Prime minister Shahbaz Sharif, centre, and foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, left, in April. Imran Khan rose to power by attacking Pakistan’s political dynasties © Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images
After Khan was elected prime minister in 2018 on a welfarist, anti-corruption platform, he governed erratically and was beholden to the same economic boom-and-bust cycles he had vowed to end. Supporters were left disillusioned, which paved the way for his removal.
His ouster only galvanised his base, leading to an increasingly nasty stand-off. Pakistan’s election commission has accused the PTI of receiving illegal foreign donations.
Khan’s aide Shahbaz Gill was also arrested last month over televised remarks that allegedly incited the military rank-and-file to disobey orders and support the former prime minister. Khan himself was subsequently charged with contempt of court and terrorism offences for allegedly threatening officials responsible for arresting Gill, who he alleged was tortured in custody. The authorities deny the allegations.
The military ‘as a kind of arbiter’
Gill’s arrest has focused attention on the role of Pakistan’s military, which wields considerable power in politics and governance. Although its backing helped Khan get into office, the relationship frayed while he was prime minister. Some supporters have revelled in what they see as his party’s efforts to take them on.
The military serves “as a kind of arbiter in the political system”, Lodhi said. “When things get really rough, they can and do intervene to either at times separate the warring political sides, or to suggest that this is the path they should take.”
The confrontation between Sharif and Khan will come to a head at the polls, which must be held by autumn 2023 at the latest. While Khan wants a quick contest to capitalise on his popularity, Sharif’s government is hoping an IMF deal will buy time for inflation to ease and its economic strategy to begin delivering.
Recommended The Big Read The strange case of the cricket match that helped fund Imran Khan’s political rise Although Sharif has staked his government on responsible economic stewardship, Sakib Sherani of research firm Macro Economic Insights argued that this will become harder to sustain as elections approach.
“Their strategy is, ‘We’ll stabilise, get the IMF on board, and then from around March we’ll start preparing for the elections,’” he said. But time will only increase the pressure on them “to loosen the spending taps [and] do something populist before the elections”.
But back at Khan’s Bani Gala residence, his supporters vowed to stick with him until he returns. “Imran Khan is an honest leader,” said Khalid Niazi, a 25-year-old car salesman. “That’s why there is so much opposition to him.”