As former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan continues to plot his political comeback, Rai Mansoor Imtiaz Khan writes that Khan's behaviour while in office shows the influence of the strongman politics often seen in Turkey and Russia, far from the talk of democracy early in his premiership.

After Nawaz Sharif swept the 2013 general elections in Punjab – the military's bastion and key to winning National Assembly seats – the military (often know as "the institution") wanted a man who could replace him and his party in this core region of Pakistan.

The military could not find any better choice than a handsome cricketer turned politician, Imran Khan. Soon, Khan appeared as the military's favourite child. He received significant media coverage and a portrayal as the country's saviour, who could challenge the political ancestry that had dominated the country for years. Khan's narrative for "Naya (New) Pakistan" and his political campaign against political dynasties only boosted his political charisma. He won the 2018 general election, where the military, being both the scriptwriter and the play's director, remained influential.

During the early months of Khan's premiership, everything was in his favour because he was backed by those who staged a way to bring him into power. Like Erdogan in Turkey, Imran Khan had spoken of democracy, justice, tolerance, and fundamental rights prior to coming to power. When his party came to power, he waged an assault not only on the democratic norms, but the constitution as well.

In both Erdogan's and Khan's regimes, opposition figures were been imprisoned under alleged charges. Khan's policies gave way to dysfunctional politics and civil authoritarianism in the country. Instead of focusing on basic socio-economic issues, designing policies to control the cost of living and the dollar's value against the ever-rising rupee, Khan remained busy targeting his critics. He used the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) against his opponents. Journalists and human rights activists who attempted to write and speak against Khan's autocracy faced a spate of attacks and abductions.

He was a stubborn skipper who saw himself as all-knowing. For instance, most observers of Pakistani politics were confident that Usman Buzdar, Khan's choice for chief minister of Punjab, was a poor choice to lead the country's largest province. Khan faced severe criticism, yet remained imprudent and obstinate. There were some rumours that Khan's wife had warned him not to replace Buzdar, as his position as chief minister was a good omen for Khan's premiership.

Khan's economic and governance failures allowed opposition parties to publicly blame the military establishment for their "wrong experiment". The ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif's daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, emerged as a charismatic new political figure in the country. During public rallies, she blamed the Chief of the army and head of Inter-Services Public Relations (the Pakistani Military's PR wing), General Bajwa, and the head of the intelligence services (ISI), Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, for stealing Nawaz Sharif's mandate in favour of Imran Khan. She also pointed fingers at General Bajwa's connections with the US pizza giant Papa John's and asked for his resignation from the chairmanship of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. It was the first time in the electoral history of Pakistan when the military and its dirty role in politics was being discussed even by the "pheri wala" (hawkers).

Khan was not worried at all. He was planning to lead the country under a civil dictatorship, and sought to control state institutions to bring about comfortable general election victories. He sought to appoint General Ahmed, apparently known for handling "dirty jobs", as the new Army Chief. Hameed even announced that he would be the next army chief in the country during his official visit to Afghanistan. This, along with further attempted appointments, led to a division within the military, particularly between General Bajwa and General Hameed.

Write for us.

We're always on the lookout for talented writers and welcome submissions. Please send your opinion piece or pitch to:

Khan's plan ultimately failed in October 2019 when General Bajwa planned to remove General Hameed from the headship of intelligence services, and the "institution" formally announced a change in roles. General Hameed left office, a new man, General Navid Anjum, was appointed as the head of the ISI, and the military signalled to political parties that they were going to be neutral in every matter of parliamentary politics.

Losing the Chief's trust was ultimately key to Khan's downfall, and last month, he was voted out from the premiership, as his former allies joined with a united opposition and voted against him.

It was the first time in the electoral history of Pakistan that an elected premier was removed with a vote of no confidence. Because of his rule as a civilian dictator, Khan could not get sympathies from democratic and progressive voices in the country following his loss of military support. Despite Khan's poor governance and rocketing inflation could not shut off his popularity among the masses. He has started a massive public campaign. During the public rallies and processions in different cities of Pakistan, the democratically-ousted Khan blamed the US for his government's downfall.

He has built a new narrative of "foreign conspiracy" and has declared the leaders of opposition parties as traitors and American slaves. Khan's ready-made narrative is being welcomed by a largely illiterate society, particularly the PTI Party's followers. Khan's strong criticism of his opponents, immoral teachings and ferocious speeches have kickstarted his followers.

Pakistani society has become highly polarised, with PTI supporters hurling abusing opponents publicly. The leaders of opposition parties are not safe when they are in public, with a recent example seeing PTI supporters harassing Shehbaz Sharif and his delegation on a visit to the Masjid-e-Nabwi mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, seen as the second holiest site in Islam.

As with Erdogan in Turkey, Imran Khan knows that Pakistani voters are less attached to core civil liberties associated with liberal democracy, and the existing political culture seems welcoming to accept "big man" rule in the country. Inspired by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, as well as Erdogan, Khan seeks total control over state institutions, particularly senior military appointments.

His unlawful attempt to block the no-confidence vote and dissolve the national assembly, which was declared unconstitutional by the supreme court, and his order to the parliament's speaker to resign his position just before the vote, reflects Khan's desire to limit checks and balances on the executive.

Khan has often said that democracy is for western nations, not Pakistan. He appears more inclined towards a presidential setup where he can enjoy a more authoritarian position. We must be thankful that his last-ditch attempts to hold on to his position as Prime Minister were impossible in the current system.

12 votes

Sign-up for free to stay up to date with the latest political news, analysis and insight from the Comment Central team.

By entering your email address you are agreeing to Comment Central’s privacy policy