Imran Khan prepares a rare showdown with Pakistan’s powerful military

A charismatic 70-year-old retired cricketer with a leg cast poses one of the biggest challenges to Pakistan’s military supremacy in decades.

Pakistan’s 500,000-strong armed forces have long played a crucial role at the heart of the country’s politics, intervening in everything from coup attempts to behind-the-scenes orchestration of a system rarely questioned by civilian leaders.

But since a gunman pumped three bullets into him last week, former Prime Minister Imran Khan has become the biggest threat to that status quo in years – implicating the military in an attempt on his life.

In a scathing speech, Khan accused Major General Faisal Naseer of colluding with arch-rival Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to try to kill him. Khan called on army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to investigate Naseer.

His allegations have sparked a rare public showdown between the hugely popular leader and the most dominant institution in Pakistan. If successful, many analysts believe Khan’s Pakistani Tehreek e Insaf party will win the next general election, due in 2023, and return its leader to power with far greater influence less than a year after he was ousted in an election campaign will bring. vote of confidence.

“Imran is at the peak of his power right now, especially after this assassination,” said Vali Nasr, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University and a former US government adviser on Pakistan. “The military has proven they are incapable of dealing with this. . . The more he challenges the military, the more popular he becomes.”

Both Sharif and the armed forces firmly deny Khan’s allegations about the shooting, with the army calling them “baseless and irresponsible”. “No one can defame the institution or its soldiers with impunity,” she added.

Prime Minister of Pakistan Shehbaz Sharif during an interview in Beijing, China, November 2, 2022
Sharif and his allies accuse Khan of recklessly stoking political tensions for his own benefit © Xinhua/Shutterstock

The military has heavily dominated Pakistani life since gaining independence from British rule in 1947, when the country was carved out of modern-day India as a home for the subcontinent’s Muslims.

While generals openly ruled through coups and martial law, political scientists say they have chosen to influence politics behind the scenes in recent years. Rarely questioned by the country’s leaders, this system has led political scientists to label Pakistan a “hybrid” democracy that blends civilian electoral politics with military rule. The military denies intervening in politics.

Many believe the armed forces, whose interests span everything from security to business, even tacitly backed Khan’s rise to power in 2018 on a welfare-oriented anti-corruption platform, something both sides deny.

However, the relationship soured when Khan was in office when he questioned the military’s position on key issues, including the election of a new intelligence chief last year.

The fallout, along with Pakistan’s deteriorating economic prospects, paved the way for his ouster in April, officials said, with the tacit approval of the military.

But if they expected Khan to be forgotten, it turned out to be a dramatic miscalculation. With the economy in crisis under a painful IMF program, the PTI leader has railed against the mismanagement and alleged bribery of the ruling elites, transforming his party into a unique movement with enough clout to stand up to the generals.

Khan's supporters at a protest in Karachi, Pakistan, in November 2022
Khan’s supporters at a protest in Karachi on Saturday. He gained popularity for challenging the military © Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images

“Imran Khan’s popularity is significantly higher than expected,” said Azeem Ibrahim, director of the New Lines Institute in Washington think tank and a former adviser to Khan. The PTI leader has successfully promoted a narrative “that the country is in chaos and those in power are manipulating the system to benefit themselves.”

Sharif and his allies accuse him of recklessly stoking political tensions for his own gain, and he faces multiple court cases, including for allegedly misdeclaring assets that could prevent him from voting in elections.

However, some critics see Khan’s attacks on the military as a cynical bargaining ploy, publicly denouncing them in order to force them to support him.

“This is just a tactic to pressure the military into giving in to their demands to overthrow the coalition government and force snap elections,” said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani diplomat. “Far from opposing military interference in politics, he wants the army to intervene on his behalf.”

The stakes are particularly high ahead of the election of a new army chief this month following Bajwa’s resignation.

With the winning candidate poised to influence Pakistani politics for years to come, analysts have argued that Khan’s attempts to oust Sharif have taken on particular urgency as the former prime minister wants to have a say in the decision.

As emphatic as Khan’s challenges may seem, analysts said there was little appetite for a long-term overhaul of the status quo of “hybrid” rule.

“While this episode will in some ways weaken the current system in Pakistan,” said Elizabeth Threlkeld, senior fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank and former US diplomat in Pakistan, “political, bureaucratic and military elites are on the spectrum remains invested in its maintenance.” Imran Khan prepares a rare showdown with Pakistan’s powerful military

Adam Bradshaw

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