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Imran Khan Isn’t Going Anywhere

Pakistan’s prime minister might just become the first ever to complete a full term.

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan addresses the legislative assembly in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, on Aug. 5.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan addresses the legislative assembly in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, on Aug. 5. AFP via Getty Images

This past April, a Pakistani columnist named Suhail Warraich boldly predicted that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government could fall in June—less than two years after it took office—if it didn’t make major improvements.

June came and went, and the government remained in place.

This past April, a Pakistani columnist named Suhail Warraich boldly predicted that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government could fall in June—less than two years after it took office—if it didn’t make major improvements.

June came and went, and the government remained in place.

But Warraich is just one of many observers speculating in recent months that Khan’s days as premier could be numbered as his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party confronts internal turmoil, damaging political scandals, and overwhelming public policy challenges it has struggled to fix.

Some believe “a political storm … will eventually sweep away” the government. Others claim it already finds itself “on the edge of collapse.” Still others speak of the possibility of a parliamentary initiative that ousts the government and replaces it with an interim administration.

It’s understandable that observers are questioning Khan’s survivability. No prime minister in Pakistan’s history has served out his or her full term—thanks mostly to a powerful military that, even when it isn’t ruling the country directly, is prone to meddling in politics.

Khan may be vulnerable, but the fate of his predecessors doesn’t doom him. In fact, he stands a strong chance of becoming the first Pakistani premier to complete a full term—thanks to the limitations of the opposition, some personal and policy success stories, and above all a military that has his back.

To be sure, Khan is feeling the heat. Long-standing reports of internal PTI rifts were seemingly confirmed in late June, when Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry went on television to detail arguments between Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Planning Minister Asad Umar, and senior PTI leader Jahangir Tareen. Chaudhry’s disclosure reportedly prompted Qureshi and Umar to ask Khan to fire Chaudhry. He did not.

These revelations of internal turmoil came amid two major scandals. In June, Pakistan’s aviation minister admitted that almost one-third of the nearly 900 active pilots in Pakistan—including many with Pakistan International Airlines, the flagship national carrier—have fake licenses and aren’t qualified to fly. To be sure, Khan’s supporters may contend this is an old problem that long predates his term. But the disclosure came on the heels of a more directly damaging revelation. In May, a government report released by the Federal Investigative Agency’s Sugar Inquiry Commission alleged that sugar mills owned by Tareen and several non-PTI leaders in the ruling coalition had resorted to corrupt and fraudulent practices.

The optics of these scandals would be dreadful for any political leader. They’re especially problematic for Khan, who has built his political image on being a relentless anti-corruption crusader.

All of this comes against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and a serious economic crisis projected to bring Pakistan’s gross-domestic-product growth down to less than 1 percent (compared to nearly 6 percent in 2018, when Khan took office)—complex policy emergencies for a ruling party that never held national power until 2018. Its inexperience in the face of such immense challenges has fueled perceptions of Islamabad being in over its head—indecisive and incapable of crafting effective responses, and therefore amenable to help from the military. During a trip to Pakistan in February, I was struck how so many people—including die-hard PTI supporters—used the term “incompetent” to describe Khan’s handling of the economic crisis. Even back in late 2019, polling revealed majorities of Pakistanis describing government ministers the same way. And yet, the policy challenges have only grown since then. To its credit, Islamabad has sought to address the inexperience problem by appointing a large number of top-qualified special assistants. However, several have become embroiled in controversy over the issue of dual nationality, and two resigned on July 29.

Ominously, the PTI is losing allies. In mid-June, a key coalition partner withdrew from the governing alliance. Later in the month, another refused to attend a dinner organized by Khan to smooth out tensions within his coalition.

Khan may be down. But despite his travails, there’s no reason to believe he’s on his way out.

Pakistan’s political opposition may be emboldened by Khan’s struggles, but it lacks the capacity and desire to mount a mass movement resulting in his ouster. It is divided—tensions are rife between the two main opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party. Pakistani analysts offer several reasons why the opposition will be hesitant to mobilize en masse to agitate for Khan’s removal. These include an unwillingness to overly antagonize a government pursuing corruption investigations against senior opposition leaders, and a preference to let Khan stay in power and struggle, so that the military—which many opposition figures believe helped bring Khan to power in the 2018 election—will recognize that it banked on the wrong leader.

Accordingly, an announcement made on July 27 by an opposition leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, that the opposition will soon release a strategy outlining plans to oust the government is likely more a symbolic hope than a reflection of reality. Incidentally, Rehman led a large anti-government march into Islamabad last fall. That protest, which failed to unite the entire opposition and only lasted two weeks, was likely driven more by a long-standing vendetta harbored by Rehman against Khan than by a strong and universal desire within the opposition to oust the premier.

And while Khan may be indecisive and inexperienced, he remains the military’s favorite son. In a country where the army’s endorsement is a virtual sine qua non for holding power, that’s nothing to sneeze at. Tellingly, Khan has not resisted the army’s ever-increasing influence over public policy, including the domestic-policy sphere typically managed by the civilian leadership. This is in marked contrast to what happened during the government led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N, when Sharif and the military embarked on a collision course over policy that resulted in Sharif being disqualified from office by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2017.

On one level, Khan’s lack of pushback against the military’s deepening impact on policy can be read as an acknowledgement that his government is inexperienced and can use all the help it can get at a moment when Pakistan confronts some of its most serious policy challenges in years. His deference can also be viewed as an indication of his alignment with the military’s views. Khan, unlike Sharif, largely sees eye to eye with the armed forces on policy. And he has made adjustments in the few areas of potential disagreement. Khan, for example, has toned down his support for the grievances of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a civil society organization harshly critical of the military. He expressed such support more emphatically prior to taking office.

Khan has further endeared himself to the military by helping improve, albeit modestly, Pakistan’s troubled image abroad—no small matter for a military keen to shift global perceptions of the country. Khan is arguably the most charismatic Pakistani civilian leader since the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Like Bhutto, he is well schooled in the ways of the world, and especially the West, thanks to his globe-girdling cricket-star days. The effusive public praise he garnered from influential leaders in Washington during a visit last July most certainly went down well with the military. So did the international media and policy analyses highlighting Khan’s “conciliatory” role during a crisis with India in February 2019, and more recently the endorsements he received from multiple capitals for a plan he proposed that offers debt forgiveness for developing countries during the coronavirus pandemic.

Khan’s performance abroad helps blunt the impact of image-damaging developments at home. These include continued capitulations to powerful religious hard-liners that prevent more tolerant policies, and harsh crackdowns on dissent. In June, Khan lionized one of the world’s most notorious terrorists, declaring that the United States “martyred” Osama bin Laden.

Furthermore, Khan has helped his cause at home in recent days following the release of new data showing decreasing numbers of new COVID-19 cases and deaths. Pakistan is now being hailed as a pandemic response success story by Bill Gates and U.N. officials.

Khan may be flawed, but he’s still the safest bet for the military. There is no logical replacement—neither from within the PTI, a party long dominated by Khan and bereft of logical prime minister candidates, nor from within the ranks of the opposition, where there is bad blood with the military.

To be sure, the prime minister isn’t out of the woods. Three years remain in his term—an eternity, given the volatility of Pakistani politics. There’s plenty of time for his fortunes to go south.

But for now, the military has things right where it wants them. It wields deep influence over policy without being burdened with the responsibility of holding power directly. And it boasts a like-minded civilian partner who is willing to defer to the generals—and who can shoulder blame when things go wrong.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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