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Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former prime minister and current head of opposition party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, speaks at a seminar on ‘regime change’ in Islamabad last month. Photo: EPA-EFE

Pakistan’s Imran Khan may yet unseat Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister. But not without the military’s help

  • Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf stunned Sharif’s ruling coalition with a big by-election win in Punjab, raising the prospect of an early election
  • Analysts say a return to power can’t be ruled out, if he can get the ultimate arbiter – army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa – on his side once more
When Imran Khan’s government was unceremoniously deposed in a vote of no-confidence in April, most political pundits wrote off his chances of ever making a comeback as Pakistan’s prime minister.

But after his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) pulled off a stunning upset by-election victory last Sunday, winning 15 of 20 seats contested, many commentators now think Khan is increasingly well-positioned to force an early general election – and even win it.

“Imran Khan’s return to power cannot be ruled out. He is riding on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, has heightened his populist rhetoric, and his political opponents are on the defensive and without a clear agenda to pull the country out of the current economic crisis,” said Raza Rumi, editor-in-chief of Naya Daur Media, a Pakistani digital news platform.

Khan gestures to supporters of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf on July 2 at a rally protesting against inflation, political destabilisation and high fuel prices. Photo: AFP

The by-election victory earned the PTI-led coalition a majority in the provincial assembly of Punjab, the most populous of the country’s four federating units.

It was poised to take control of the administration in the region but that plan appeared to have been thwarted on Friday – at least for the short term – after the party failed to reach an agreement with a coalition partner on who should be the new chief minister.

For now, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) remains in control of Punjab, the party’s electoral stamping ground for much of the last 40 years.

Analysts believe it will have to surrender the position of Punjab chief minister to a coalition partner in order to prevent control of the province going to the PTI.

China, India, money woes, US conspiracy claims keep Pakistan’s new PM busy

Its coalition partners – eight in all, ordinarily electoral rivals – control the southern province of Sindh and restive western Balochistan province, where China operates the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar.

Sharif’s federal coalition government has a slim majority in the National Assembly, and would collapse if any of the nine constituent parties were to break ranks – a decision analysts believe could be triggered by a phone call from the military.

The military-led “establishment is stuck in a quandary,” said Naya Daur’s Rumi, who is also a visiting lecturer at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs in the US.

“If they don’t move to an election, Imran Khan will further destabilise the polity and if they go for an early election, economic chaos will hurt Pakistanis across the board.”

‘Investors appear somewhat fearful’

The growing prospect of further political instability has unnerved investors, who fear a snap election could delay the resumption of financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

The benchmark Karachi Stock Exchange 100 Index slid to a 12-year low on Tuesday, and by Wednesday Pakistan’s rupee had lost nearly 10 per cent.

“Investors appear somewhat fearful of the political instability in Pakistan that hasn’t really died down since Mr. Imran Khan was removed,” said Aqdas Afzal, a professor of economics at Habib University in Karachi.

Instability has been factored in by the market since the change of government in April, so investors are not panicking yet, he said.

Stockbrokers monitor share prices at the Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi on Tuesday. Photo: AFP

But they are likely to liquidate many of their holdings if Khan succeeds in his campaign for an early general election.

“The investors and markets will react very negatively if general elections are announced,” Afzal said.

Pakistan and the IMF reached a staff-level agreement on July 13 to extend a 2019 balance of payments support facility agreed by Khan’s government up to June 2023, and to enhance its overall value by US$1 billion to about US$7 billion.

Without it, Pakistan was hurtling towards a default on its foreign debt, forcing the government to bow to IMF demands to remove subsidies on fuel and utility bills.

Pakistan scores IMF win – but millions of people could face ruin, analysts say

In doing so, it practically doubled the rate of consumer price inflation to nearly 24 per cent by June, making the average of 10 per cent seen during the PTI’s administration seem mild by comparison.

Sharif’s party said that the crushing financial impact of IMF-enforced structural economic reforms ultimately swung the outcome of the closely contested by-elections last Sunday.

“We paid the price for taking tough decisions,” said Shehbaz’s brother Nawaz Sharif, a former three-time prime minister who leads the PML-N.

How could Khan make a comeback?

For Khan to return to power, he must persuade the powerful army chief of staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, to once again throw the institutional weight of the military behind the PTI, analysts said.

The army has directly ruled Pakistan for about half its 75-year history and, despite the restoration of democracy in 2008, remains the ultimate arbiter of power in the country.

Bajwa ushered Khan into power in August 2018 after a general election campaign fraught with brazen interference by the military’s intelligence agencies.

The two men fell out over the PTI’s failure to deliver effective governance, which turned public sentiment against the military, and because Khan resisted Bajwa’s plans to repair Pakistan’s relations with neighbouring India and the United States.
Pakistan’s Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa seen in March. Photo: AP

Alongside his tireless electioneering for the Punjab by-elections, Khan and his party’s highly effective social media team mounted an unprecedented campaign against Bajwa and the chief of the feared Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum.

Khan accused the Pakistan army’s leadership of being complicit in an alleged US conspiracy to overthrow his government.

When it became apparent in late March that he was on the way out, Khan claimed that his government had weeks earlier received an encrypted message from Pakistan’s then ambassador in Washington, Asad Majeed.

In it, the envoy supposedly detailed threats of regime change made in conversation by Donald Lu, the US assistant secretary of state for Central and South Asia.

In debt and out of favour: Pakistan’s strained relations with China

Khan’s claims were dismissed by US State Department spokesman Ned Price as “lies”.

Khan’s subsequent claim that he had shared the “evidence” of the conspiracy with military and intelligence chiefs – and that they had endorsed his interpretation of the ambassador’s message – was repeatedly repudiated by chief spokesman of the armed forces Major General Baber Iftikhar, both before and after the PTI government fell on April 9.

Nonetheless, the “half-truths peddled by Imran Khan, such as saying ‘no’ to America and rejecting the ‘slavery’ of the West, are gaining traction,” Rumi said.

Voters cast their ballots at a polling station in Lahore for the by-election in Punjab province on July 17. Photo: AFP via Getty Images/TNS

At the same time, Khan and his political allies have sought to cajole the generals into restoring their support for the PTI.

“The country cannot afford a weak army: the army is our big asset and a U-turn is very important for generals and leaders,” Khan said in a speech last Saturday, on the eve of the by-elections in Punjab.

“Mistakes can be made and if so, then go back,” he said.

Analyst Rumi said Khan had learned “the necessity of keeping the two pillars of the permanent establishment – the military and the judiciary – under immense pressure.”

General Bajwa has full authority as long as he is army chief. Political noise affects his image but not his authority or power
Husain Haqqani, Hudson Institute think tank

Despite Khan’s bombast and the PTI’s by-election comeback, analysts said Bajwa still holds all the cards.

“General Bajwa has full authority as long as he is army chief. Political noise affects his image but not his authority or power,” said Husain Haqqani, director of Central and South Asian affairs at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

Khan may successfully build a narrative about the current military leadership “ousting him because it wants better ties with the US and India”, he said.

“But in the long term, the military thinks about its institutional interests and whatever it thinks is in Pakistan’s national interest,” said Haqqani, who served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US from 2008 to 2012.

Return to dynastic nepotism leaves Pakistan facing an uncertain future

Khan’s populism “might get him votes and make him prime minister again”, but he is unlikely to be “the man who saves Pakistan from chaos,” he said.

“In fact, he might send Pakistan hurtling towards economic disaster and chaos faster by raising hopes and failing to fulfil them.”