Imran Khan’s cricket match – World – Al-Ahram Weekly

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The heavy police and security presence on the streets of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, is a clear sign of impending political unrest. The cricketer-turned-politician has asked President Arif Alvi to dissolve parliament following a failed opposition attempt to oust Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan by a vote of no confidence.

Khan risks throwing the country into chaos as snap general elections must be held within 90 days if the decision to dissolve parliament is overturned by the Supreme Court. The no-confidence vote proposed by the two main opposition parties was blocked by the Deputy Speaker of the House, a member of Khan’s party, who called the attempt illegal and ended the session abruptly. The opposition had already secured a simple majority of 172 votes in the 342-seat parliament after Khan’s small but key coalition partners and 17 of his own party, Tehreek-e-Insaf members, joined the call to oust him. It is worth noting that the only two similar votes in Pakistan’s history have not removed the prime minister in question either: Benazir Bhutto in 1989 and Shaukat Aziz in 2006.

The tide has turned against Khan as he faces public frustration at how he has been handling the economy. Higher inflation and the rising cost of living are fueling public anger. Khan won the 2018 election on a promise to fight corruption and bring about economic change in favor of the middle and lower classes at the expense of the privileged and super-rich. His anti-Western rhetoric, particularly his criticism of US foreign policy in the region, resonated with most of the young population.

This seems to have changed, as London-based commentator Tanveer Bhatti told Al Ahram Weekly: “Imran Khan’s important constituency is the young population, but he has alienated them a little as he is with the old guard in the party Cabinet needs to work together while the young wanted him to bring in new blood, root out corruption and steer the economy in a different direction…while others say he hasn’t formed enough alliances with opposition parties. These parties are deeply rooted in Pakistani politics and own almost everything in Pakistan.”

But Khan’s die-hard supporters believe his recent claim that an American conspiracy to overthrow him is afoot. Although both Washington and the opposition parties deny this, a good part of the population believes his rhetoric. Anti-Western, especially anti-American sentiments are always high in the Islamic country with over 220 million inhabitants.

Such claims find support in Khan’s populist foreign policy. He has quickly moved towards economic cooperation with China and Russia. He visited Moscow on the very day the Ukraine war began, back in February, and the warm welcome he received from President Vladimir Putin seems to have intimidated Americans. “Even before he came to power in 2018, Imran Khan was very clear that he no longer wanted American bases [in Pakistan] for the Afghanistan conflict, and that itself was a change from previous presidents,” said Tanveer Bhatti.

In fact, since Khan’s election victory four years ago, the two main opposition parties have been trying to unseat him. Shehbaz Sharif, leader of the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League, hopes to replace Khan in power and is now allying himself with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of the traditional Pakistan People’s Party. With the economy in bad shape, the West angered by the government’s foreign policy and the US no longer comfortable with Islamabad, the opposition saw this as a ripe moment to overthrow Imran Khan.

But Khan is a fighter who doesn’t give up easily. In 1992, he told the Pakistan cricket team, “Fight like cornered tigers,” and against all odds, they won the World Cup. The former cricket star could be in a similar position politically now, but it’s not clear whether the cricket tactics of three decades ago can work in this case. After the President dissolved parliament, Khan addressed the people on TV and said, “Thank God a conspiracy to overthrow the government has failed… I ask people to prepare for the next elections.”

Despite all the criticism, Imran Khan tried to approach Pakistani domestic politics differently – including from an economic point of view. With most of Pakistan’s population located in the Punjab, where living standards are deteriorating due to a combination of factors, Bhatti finds his efforts diluted: “Imran Khan has done a good job of bringing peace to the northern areas. But the middle classes in Lahore and other cities are disappointed with the progress and representation in Imran Khan’s government. But because they are well educated, they will better understand that Covid and the IMF deal have very much tied the government’s hands.”

Khan still has appeal and he may have a chance of winning a general election. Western analysts mainly focus on the clashes between Khan and the Pakistani military, which were believed to have aided his 2018 victory behind the scenes. In October, he refused to reverse the appointment of a new chief of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, the main conduit for relations with Washington.

In response to claims that the US was conspiring with the opposition to oust the government, General Qamar Javed Bajwa – the army’s chief of staff – stressed Pakistan’s “long and excellent strategic relationship with the US”. The military appears to have left Khan earlier. “Even before the ISI chief case, there were rumors that Imran Khan was not in charge of Punjab province. Opposition leader Shahbaz Sherif, who governs the region, has very close ties to the military. So for almost a year there has been talk of the military moving away from Imran Khan,” notes Bhatti.

Some observers in the Western media are suggesting that elections may not take place at all, and if the opposition fails in its legal battle to convene parliament and hold a vote of no confidence, a coup could ensue. That would not be unusual for Pakistan, where the military has ruled by coup for nearly half of its 75-year history as an independent country.

*A version of this article will appear in print in the April 7, 2022 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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