Since his humiliating defeat, the former cricket star, 69, has campaigned for a political comeback, drawing large crowds of young people to rowdy rallies across the country. In a angrier version of the impassioned, anti-elitist rhetoric that swept him to power in 2018, he doubled down on his vague accusations of massive vote theft and an American-backed “plot” to overthrow him, demanding the holding new elections. .
On July 17, his individual vendetta took a sudden boost when his party scored a stunning political upheaval, winning 15 of the 20 open legislative seats in Punjab province. Punjab is Pakistan’s most important political and economic region and the stronghold of the ruling party, led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. The contest was held by court order to replace lawmakers who had left Khan’s party.
The unexpected pro-Khan landslide has sent shockwaves through the Sharif government, a fragile nine-party coalition that is concerned about two national emergencies: a plummeting economy and extreme weather. The first crisis, marked by record inflation, left millions of poor Pakistanis facing soaring food and fuel prices, while the second left vast farmlands dying of drought or inundated by torrential rains.
Pakistani PM Imran Khan ousted in vote of no confidence
On Friday, Khan and his Pakistani Justice Movement appeared poised for a second victory, which could have forced the Sharif government to call new elections. In this case, the court-ordered vote took place in the provincial legislature to fill the powerful post of chief minister of Punjab, temporarily held by Sharif’s son, Hamza Shahbaz. Khan had warned that there were official vote-buying schemes underway, but at 10 p.m., when the 369 votes were counted, the vice president announced that Khan’s candidate had won 186 votes, more than enough to win.
Then events took a bizarre turn. An advance letter from a minor political party leader was produced, asking legislative officials not to count his 10-vote bloc unless they were in favor of Shahbaz. This followed separate complaints of technical irregularities from other pro-government figures. With this, the Vice President subtracted 10 votes from Khan’s side and declared that Shahbaz had won by 3 votes. As shouting and protests mounted, the exercise collapsed in turmoil and confusion.
Shortly after 11 p.m., a stern Khan appeared on television. He said he was “shocked” by the day’s events, called on supporters to stage peaceful protests across the country and said he would ask the Supreme Court to intervene. He accused the election of being bought “in the same way that sheep and goats are sold” and named Asif Ali Zardari, a wealthy former Pakistani president now allied with the Sharif government, as the mastermind of the plot, the calling him a thief who “buys democracy with black money.
But Home Minister Rana Sanaullah told reporters in Punjab’s capital Lahore that the decision to keep Shahbaz in power would “promote democracy and tolerance”. He accused Khan of trying to ‘create chaos and anarchy in the country’ and warned that if he fomented mass protests, ‘we will teach you to obey the law’ and ‘we will not allow you to destabilize the country”. We will arrest you.
The Supreme Court said Saturday it would review the conduct of Friday’s vote, which could reinstate Khan’s nominee Pervez Elahi as the winner. But regardless of the outcome, many observers see the raucous political brawl as an unfortunate national embarrassment and another black eye for Pakistan’s weak democracy, a political grudge match that has taken precedence over the deeper issues facing faces the impoverished country of 220 million people.
“Our economy is in very bad shape, and this political uncertainty will add to our woes even more,” Ayaz Amir, a veteran columnist and former liberal lawmaker, told Dunya Television. “Politicians focus on power politics and pay no attention to the real issues,” especially inflation, he said. Pakistani leaders, he said, should use “more common sense” instead of “denying people their mandate.” Otherwise, I see only chaos and destruction to come.
Pakistan’s ousted prime minister remains a powerful political force
In some ways, Khan has benefited from being an outside critic while his successors have to deal with an economic disaster they inherited from him. While in power, Khan reportedly jeopardized a crucial debt rescue deal with the International Monetary Fund when he cut fuel and food costs as he struggled to stay in power. Now the Sharif government has been forced to reverse these policies, making tough and unpopular decisions to save the bailout.
Khan was also free to campaign in poor agricultural regions hit by drought and torrential rains, sympathizing with desperate villagers and promising to help them if he returned to power. Last week he traveled to a flooded area in southern Punjab, where video footage showed crowds of villagers wading barefoot through fields of crumbling muddy water, eager to reach the muddy highway where Khan and his helpers were waiting in a caravan.
“I was afraid that the heavy rain would drive people away, but they walked for miles in mud and rain, without umbrellas or shoes, to answer his call,” said Ghulam Sarwar, a Khan party lawmaker from Sahiwal, the sodden district Khan visited that day. “We grow a lot of wheat and cotton, but we had to deal with deadly heat and floods,” he said, adding that the Khan government had helped small farmers with loans for seeds and fertilizers. “People here love him and they will vote for him again,” he said.
Khan has also cultivated huge urban supporters since his ousting, organizing rallies in cities to promote new elections, expose incumbent leaders as corrupt and expose alleged foreign designs against Pakistan’s independence. On Thursday, the day before Punjab’s second election, he suddenly called on his fans to rally in major cities including Islamabad and thousands rushed to comply.
In a televised address that evening, shown on large outdoor screens via video link, Khan warned against further vote-buying schemes and called on supporters to protest against any fraud. He also repeated his vague accusations of a US plot to bring “slavery” and “imported government” to Pakistan, which US officials have denied. But the mood of the rally drivers was upbeat and hopeful.
“He is the only honest leader in this country, the only one who cares about us. All other politicians are thieves,” said Raja Wali, 30, a driver who brought his wife and two children to the rally. Others in the crowd praised Khan for improving access to health care for the poor and bringing economic development to their chronically impoverished country.
“We’re all in the mud now, but he wants to get us out of it,” said Amir Qureshi, 53, a shoe store owner and volunteer organizer of Khan’s party. “We don’t want Pakistan to become like Sri Lanka, where everything collapsed and exploded. We want it to keep growing, we want new elections soon and we want it back.
Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.