Why 2022 is shaping up to be a nightmare year for Imran Khan

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks at news conference on Oct. 26. (Rahmat Gul/AP)
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks at news conference on Oct. 26. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Imran Khan has always portrayed himself as the savior of Pakistan. He has often claimed that a country borrows a lot only if its leaders are corrupt. Pakistanis still remember him saying that he would rather kill himself than beg for loans.

But that isn’t how he’s acted since he became prime minister in 2018. In the three years since then, he’s broken all previous records on borrowing ($40 billion). Now, his opponents are callously demanding that he should honor his words and end his life because he has surrendered the financial sovereignty of Pakistan to the International Monetary Fund. Khan appointed a former IMF official as the head of the central bank, and now the IMF has drastically curtailed the Pakistani government’s control over the bank as well. Some experts are claiming that Pakistan has gone bankrupt. Can Khan save Pakistan from an economic collapse, or will his own government crumble before the next election in 2023?

Until recently, Khan was one of the luckiest prime ministers the country has ever known. Unlike most of his predecessors, he has never faced problems from the powerful military establishment. The opposition has been weak and divided. Khan has enjoyed three years of smooth sailing. Yet now, his own political survival is under threat.

The trouble really began in September, when his party resoundingly lost local government elections held in military residential areas. That defeat showed that he no longer enjoys wide popularity among the armed forces.

Then, in December, came another local government election in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), along the border with Afghanistan. Khan’s party, the Movement for Justice, has ruled this province since 2013 — yet in this election, it lost almost all the important cities of the province. This panicked Khan. Instead of trying to understand the actual reasons behind the defeat, he dissolved the party’s national organization. New nominations to party posts are creating resentment among party workers who were already demoralized by infighting among party leaders.

Imran Khan thinks that his party lost in KP because of a poor selection of candidates. Some of his close aides think differently. They blame rising inflation for the recent defeat. Khan ushered in 2022 with a huge increase in gasoline prices, the highest ever in the country’s history. Common Pakistanis are already being squeezed by rising prices. Khan, for his part, claims that Pakistan is one of the “cheapest countries in the world” (meaning, allegedly, that the cost of living is low). In fact, Pakistan is facing the highest rates of inflation in South Asia. The Pakistani rupee has broken all previous records for depreciation against the U.S. dollar.

Many of those who voted for Khan in 2018 are now dissatisfied by his performance. He has run through four finance ministers and six finance secretaries in the last three years. Khan has always blamed the corruption of previous governments for the country’s economic problems — but that excuse is wearing thin. His own government has failed to make any improvement on corruption.

His foreign policy is another disaster. He embraced the Afghan Taliban immediately after the fall of Kabul. He tried to help the Taliban regime by organizing a special meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Islamabad. But rather than listening to Islamabad, the Taliban has been defying Pakistan in a very arrogant manner. It has not only interfered with the Pakistani army’s efforts to build a fence along the border — it has also exchanged fire with the army in some places. Pakistan tried to use the new regime in Kabul to broker a peace deal with the Pakistani Taliban but so far that has failed. Now, the Pakistani army and the Taliban are coming face to face in border areas and killing one another.

It is interesting that Khan is supporting the Afghan Taliban but pro-Taliban elements in Pakistan are not supporting him. The ruling party in KP was recently defeated by a pro-Taliban party, the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI-F). The chief of the JUI-F, Maulana Fazl ur Rehman, has been a vocal critic of the military’s interference in politics. He told me last week that the military establishment stayed neutral in the KP elections.

According to some reports, the new head of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, ISI, Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmad Anjum, is trying to keep a low profile. If true, that’s bad news for Khan. If the ISI remains neutral it will be difficult for Khan to defeat a no-confidence move in Parliament, where his majority is very thin. (He stirred up a huge fuss last year when he used the ISI’s support to maintain his party’s control in parliament.)

Khan is also facing an investigation by the Election Commission over irregularities in funds received from outside Pakistan. This case is a ticking time bomb for Khan. Unfortunately for him, that’s not the only potential disaster he’s likely to face in the year ahead.

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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