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Imran Khan Is Out, but It’s Not His Last Innings

The ousted Pakistani leader has vowed to fight on, as opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif looks set for power.

Imran Khan supporters wave party flags.
Imran Khan supporters wave party flags.
Supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party wave party flags as they take part in a rally to support former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Karachi, Pakistan, on April 10. Rizwan TABASSUM/AFP

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at Pakistan’s political upheaval, the first round of the French presidential election, and more news from around the world.

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at Pakistan’s political upheaval, the first round of the French presidential election, and more news from around the world.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Lawmakers Oust Khan 

Pakistan’s parliament is set to vote in a new prime minister this morning following the ouster of Imran Khan over the weekend. Opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif is expected to assume the role, though if Pakistan’s history is any indication, it won’t be for long; Khan’s exit means no Pakistani prime minister has ever finished a parliamentary term.

While Khan was ousted via democratic means (a first for Pakistan), his departure had been foreshadowed late last year when he ran afoul of the country’s powerful military establishment. Michael Kugelman, a regional expert at the Wilson Center and author of FP’s South Asia Brief, explained why the parliamentary nature of Khan’s removal obscures what lies beneath.

“The army is perfectly happy to pull strings from behind the scenes and exert influence quietly without holding power directly because it recognizes that its better to let the civilians take the fall for the policy failures,” Kugelman told Foreign Policy. “And that insulates the army and helps ensure its continued popularity.”

As the BBC tells it, often direct military pressure to remain on Khan’s side had largely evaporated in the last few weeks, allowing lawmakers to defect to the opposition and ensure his downfall. “We used to be manhandled,” one defector from Khan’s party told the BBC, describing past calls from Pakistani intelligence services. “Now the army is not interfering.”

Khan’s stewardship of the economy didn’t help his situation. Inflation has spiked under his leadership, predating the recent global surge, and a Gallup poll at the beginning of this year found that it was the No. 1 concern of more than 60 percent of respondents. A $6 billion International Monetary Fund program has also hit Pakistani wallets, with an increase in taxes being a prerequisite for the country to receive funding.

Princeton economist Atif Mian said Khan’s government, inheriting a weak economy in 2018, “went for the usual short cuts” in its economic policy instead of focusing on sustainable growth. “This basic sense was missing,” Mian wrote in a Twitter thread.

Khan’s replacement, Sharif, the younger brother of former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is considered close with the military and comes with a solid political track record from his time as chief minister of Punjab, a province home to roughly half of Pakistan’s 229 million population. His tenure could prove short, with Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party threatening to resign en masse once Sharif is voted in, raising the probability of new elections well before parliament’s term expires in 2023.

Since Pakistan’s military largely calls the shots in directing foreign policy, the change in leadership shouldn’t upset the country’s geopolitical balancing act, which has included a warming of relations with Russia. (Khan visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow the day Russia invaded Ukraine.)

It may affect the Taliban in next door Afghanistan, however. Khan praised the group’s takeover in August for “breaking the chains of slavery” and has been one of the few world leaders to call for international recognition of the Taliban government. Speaking on Sunday, a Taliban spokesperson said the upheaval would “not have any particular impact” on relations between the two countries.

Khan, a famous cricketer before turning to politics, is unlikely to fade away from the political scene, with rallies in major cities across the country on Sunday evening underlining his popular support. Khan thanked his supporters on Twitter for protesting “U.S.-backed regime change” helped by “local Mir Jafars,” or traitors. Kugelman expects Khan to persist in that anti-American rhetoric in a country where throwing around such accusations finds fertile ground.

“Hes going to try to continue to rally his base and do everything he can to be in a strong position when the next election comes,” Kugelman said. “I think the big question is: Will he still retain the capacity to mobilize and energize on levels that he had in the past?”

“He did upset a lot of people in his handling of the economy,” Kugelman added. “His relationship with the military has taken hits, and so they wont be doing him any favors as we get into the campaign season. So that would make it tough for him. But he’s not going to give in.”

The World This Week

Wednesday, April 13: French election authorities formally announce the results of the first round of France’s presidential election.

Friday, April 15: The Jewish festival of Passover begins. Christians mark Good Friday.

Sunday, April 17: Christians celebrate Easter Sunday.

What We’re Following Today

France decides. French President Emmanuel Macron will square off against longtime rival Marine Le Pen in the country’s presidential election runoff on April 24, according to exit polls released on Sunday. Macron won 27.84 percent and no candidate received more than 30 percent of the vote in an election that saw low voter turnout.

Although Le Pen’s staying power indicates an enduring far-right bloc in French politics, her 23.15 percent tally was closely followed by the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who received 21.95 percent of the vote. Green candidate Yannick Jadot (4.63 percent) and conservative candidate Valerie Pécresse (4.78 percent) both endorsed Macron’s candidacy on Sunday evening. The second round could have looked a whole lot different if left-wing voters had thrown in with Mélenchon instead, as Cole Stangler noted last week.

Nehammer in Moscow. Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer is in Moscow today to meet with Putin, making him the first European leader to visit the Russian president since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. Nehammer’s trip comes days after he visited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.

The Austrian leader told local media that he wished to be a “bridge builder” in the conflict and later added that he would prioritize a cease-fire, humanitarian corridors, and the investigation of war crimes. Nehammer’s position as a go-between could prove fruitful as Austria maintains a neutral foreign policy and is not a member of the NATO alliance.

U.S.-India 2+2. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin welcome their Indian counterparts, Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, for a 2+2 ministerial dialogue in Washington today. The visit comes as global powers jockey to influence New Delhi as it takes a nonaligned stance to the war in Ukraine.

Keep an Eye On

Australia’s election. Australia will hold parliamentary elections on May 21, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Sunday, with polls predicting these could be the Liberal Party leader’s final weeks in office. The opposition Labor Party, headed by Anthony Albanese, is currently favored to win—as they were in 2018 when Morrison defied the polls to score an upset victory. Morrison has framed the choice as one “between a government you know and a Labor opposition that you dont.”

The Iran deal. Iranian lawmakers on Sunday announced conditions under which the 2015 nuclear deal should be revived, including a call for guarantees, approved by U.S. Congress, that the United States would not leave the deal nor “use pretexts to trigger the snapback mechanism” on sanctions.

The demands were made in a letter signed by 250 of 290 Iranian lawmakers and came as Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian called on U.S. President Joe Biden to lift some sanctions via executive order as a sign of goodwill.

After months of negotiations, why is a deal not yet across the line? Writing last week, FP’s Colum Lynch explored why it’s becoming such a hard sell in Washington and beyond.

China-Serbia ties. China delivered an advanced anti-aircraft system to Serbia over the weekend in a sign of growing military ties between the two countries. Serbia had agreed to purchase the FK-3 (or HQ-22) systems in 2019 and had recently complained that neighboring countries were preventing the delivery by refusing overflight permission to Chinese military planes. Once deployed, it will be the first such use of the equipment in Europe. The system joins other Chinese equipment, like Chengdu Pterodactyl I drones, which Serbia acquired in 2020.

Odds and Ends

Police in India are searching for perpetrators after a gang stole a 60-foot-long bridge in a village in the eastern state of Bihar. The authorities said the thieves had posed as irrigation authorities and had taken two days to dismantle the abandoned bridge using heavy equipment, with likely plans to sell the metal as scrap. Police said local villagers had assumed that the local government had finally decided to take the bridge apart, having previously petitioned the irrigation department to secure its removal.

Update, April 11, 2022: This newsletter has been updated to add newly released election results.

Colm Quinn was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2020 and 2022. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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