Imran Khan is pushing Pakistan to the brink

Former prime minister Imran Khan refuses to accept his fall from power. Earlier this year, before he lost office in an unprecedented parliamentary no-confidence vote, he effectively declared war on his opponents: “I wish to warn you: If I am ousted from the government, I will be more dangerous for you”. Now he is trying to make good on that threat by fueling fears of bloody civil conflict if he isn’t restored to power within the next few months.

In recent years, Khan has tried to cement his hold on power through a populist strategy of polarization and division. Now, he is relying on the same playbook to reverse his defeat at the hands of Parliament — even if that means openly flouting constitutional ground rules. Most ominous of all, he has announced plans to bring 2 million members of his Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI) to Islamabad in the last week of May to assert his claim to power and intimidate opponents.

It’s rumored that his loyalists will try to surround Parliament and other public buildings to bring the functioning of the federal government — now under the control of a coalition led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif — to a standstill. Khan has fired up his supporters with misplaced patriotism aggravated by lies, and they’re already keen to confront the people they regard not just as political opponents but also as “traitors”. Khan clearly hopes that he can use his mob to push through his demand for fresh elections within two months. He is calling the campaign the “Freedom March”.

Freedom from what, exactly? From foreign interference, as Khan’s followers see it. That is the key to his plans for taking back power. He hopes to win a new election not on the basis of his performance in the government (which was dismal) but by pushing an anti-American conspiracy theory. In Khan’s telling, he was deposed from power by Pakistani politicians who were following orders from the Biden administration to punish him for defying its alleged dictates.

His followers are using every disinformation technique in the book to spread the message, from Twitter sock puppets to elaborately crafted fake stories. Khan himself recently shared a Fox News video clip showing a pro-Trump analyst, Rebecca Grant, saying that Pakistan must support Ukraine and end anti-U.S. policies. Yet Khan glossed over the fact that Grant was speaking in a personal capacity, not as a representative of the administration in Washington. Khan’s story was thoroughly debunked by Pakistani analysts.

Recent opinion polls suggest that few Pakistanis seem willing to buy into Khan’s claims. The country’s top political and military leadership has unanimously rejected Khan’s version of events, but that hasn’t stopped him for a moment. Undeterred, he is raising funds from his supporters to resist what he calls the new “imported” government — funds that include donations from supporters in various foreign countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom. Khan and his supporters don’t seem bothered by the obvious hypocrisy.

His followers talk obsessively of threats against them. Their predictions that the current political standoff will lead to bloodshed could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. One PTI leader has accused the opposition of plotting Khan’s assassination; another has claimed that he himself is being targeted for murder. By summoning the possibility of civil unrest, Khan’s supporters are, among other things, effectively asking the army to intervene in politics or face the consequences.

Khan himself is indirectly challenging the leadership of the army. A few days ago he pointedly mentioned the name of an 18th-century Bengali military leader who collaborated with British colonial forces, making him one of the subcontinent’s most famous traitors. Everyone understood the message: Khan was implying that the army leaders are today’s traitors because they refuse to support him against his fictional foreign plotters. The army responded almost immediately, issuing a statement that warned against dragging the military into the “political discourse in the country”. (Khan has since tried to get out of the mess by claiming that he was accusing Sharif of treason, not the military.)

Khan is playing a dangerous game. He has virtually declared war on Parliament, the judiciary and the Election Commission; now he is confronting the military as well. By directly challenging the institutions of the state, he is pushing Pakistani society to the brink.

There are many signs that those institutions are prepared to push back. The Election Commission could soon announce a verdict in the case it has been pursuing against Khan (over alleged foreign funding of campaigns) since 2014. Meanwhile, the government is investigating corruption allegations against Khan and his entourage. A senior minister recently told me that they have plenty of evidence to open a case, and said that Khan is demanding quick elections because he wants to preempt action against him.

On May 9, Sharif gave a speech accusing Khan of undermining democracy by spewing “poison” against state institutions: “If this is not stopped through the law and the Constitution, then God forbid this country will become a hideous reflection of Syria and Libya where cities present scenes of graveyards today”.

The political climate in Pakistan could not be more tense. Let us hope that the forces of democracy can find a way out of the current crisis.

Hamid Mir is a contributing columnist for the Global Opinions section focused on Pakistani politics and geopolitical issues in the region.

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