How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In early November, a gunman opened fire on Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan, and his supporters at a rally. One person was killed, many more were injured, and Khan was struck in the leg. Although the motivation of the shooter, who was detained, remains unclear, Khan quickly blamed the government and, pointedly, a senior intelligence official for the attack. Since losing office in April in the wake of a no-confidence vote, Khan has led a campaign against both the new civilian government and the generals who are seen as the true power brokers in Pakistan. In so doing, he has deepened already fraught political tensions and put himself in unprecedented direct conflict with the military, once his ally.
The shooting has not derailed Khan’s “long march” on the capital, Islamabad. The rally at which he was attacked was one of a series that he has been staging in cities across the country to show the strength of his popular support. The next stage of the march begins on November 26 in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s twin city, with Khan leading a mass demonstration to call for early elections. Khan seeks to return to power, decrying the corruption and collusion of the politicians who usurped him and the military leaders who he feels betrayed him.
But there is more at stake in Khan’s protest movement than his personal ambition. Once supportive of (and backed by) the military, he has now challenged both the civilian political establishment and the military by mobilizing many Pakistanis to join his cause—and stand against Pakistan’s traditional power blocs. In the process, he has upended some of the traditional formula of Pakistani politics and polarized the Pakistani electorate more than ever. Both the military and the political establishment see Khan as the most potent threat they have faced. Pakistan has become more unstable as a result, and political contestation now has even less to do with policy than it did before, at a perilous time of metastasizing economic and ecological crises. And neither side is backing down.
After making his name as the star captain of Pakistan’s national cricket team, Khan joined politics in 1996 and expanded his political platform in the last decade by styling himself as a maverick and an outsider. In doing so, he repudiated the traditional political elites and the two parties that had long dominated Pakistani politics: the Pakistan Muslim League, known as the PML-N, and the Pakistan Peoples Party, known as the PPP. In 2018, he became prime minister when his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), defeated the incumbent PML-N. The military perceived Khan as a pliant alternative to the two established political parties, and he initially seemed to rule with its support. But cracks in the relationship emerged as Khan pushed back on the appointment of a new intelligence chief in 2021, eventually leading the military to withdraw its support from him. This spring, when the opposition brought a no-confidence vote against Khan, his tenuous ruling coalition fell apart, and he was ousted as prime minister.
Khan’s tenure ended in April, well before his five-year electoral term was due to expire in 2023. That premature conclusion was not altogether surprising: an elected Pakistani prime minister has never served out a full term in office. And although the manner of his ouster was legal—he lost a no-confidence vote in Parliament—what underlay it, as with all his predecessors, was his falling out with the military.
But for Khan, the end was just the beginning. He has used his ouster to wage a powerful campaign of grievance, casting the current government as illegitimate and whipping up popular support. He has alleged that the military and his political rivals colluded with the United States to remove him, a conspiracy theory that, although lacking any evidence, has found ready support among his supporters. Day after day, week after week, he has led huge rallies across Pakistan, demonstrating his formidable street power.
A consummate populist, Khan offers his supporters a sweeping rejection of Pakistan’s institutions.
These rallies are not staid political events. They are carnivals of sorts, full of musical performances and attended by men, women, and children. Voter preferences are difficult to discern in Pakistan because preelection polls are not regularly conducted in the country. But Khan’s supporters tend to be urban and middle class, many of them young people tired of Pakistan’s old political parties. They are a generation produced by social media; not for them the established parties’ dreary way of doing business through press conferences and dry speeches. Pakistan’s demographic trends—64 percent of its population is under 30—may favor Khan’s party more than his rivals in future elections. Although support for Khan is concentrated in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which are both held by his party, his base cuts across geography by drawing on disillusionment with the current political class. His chief rivals do not have this kind of broad-based backing; the PPP’s voter base is concentrated in Sindh, and the ruling PML-N draws the bulk of its support from Punjab, where it has been losing ground to Khan’s PTI.
A consummate populist, Khan offers his supporters a sweeping rejection of the institutions that have long shaped their lives. At his rallies and in countless interviews, Khan has described the current government as dynastic and corrupt (he calls the current prime minister “crime minister”) and undeserving of the office. But more important, Khan has taken on the military and derided its claims of political neutrality. His rhetoric has occasioned a dramatic reversal of roles. When Khan was prime minister, the PML-N and its allies had painted him as a puppet of the military. Now back in power, the PML-N has completely shed its antimilitary stance. Khan, in turn, has made railing against the military establishment one of his defining mantras. Especially on social media, his supporters have directed their ire at General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the army chief who is arguably the most powerful man in Pakistan. Khan and his party have redrawn previously maintained redlines of criticism against the military, with the former prime minister pointing to the military’s involvement in his ouster and making direct accusations against a military official after his shooting.
This narrative seems to be working: Khan’s political momentum has already translated to the ballot box, with his party winning 15 out of 20 electoral seats in by-elections for the Punjab provincial assembly held in July and six out of eight National Assembly seats in by-elections held in October. The election results and gargantuan crowds at his rallies point to Khan upending the PML-N’s traditional power base in Punjab. Meanwhile, the current government is struggling with back-breaking inflation, dwindling foreign reserves, and a deepening economic crisis. It now has reason to fear voters’ wrath.
In the face of Khan’s populist juggernaut, the government and the military establishment have, in concert, turned to familiar tactics. They have pushed hard against Khan, his party, and the media channels allied with him, seeking to ensnare them in legal troubles. In August, police filed antiterrorism charges against Khan for making remarks that supposedly threatened police officers and a judge involved in a case against one of his aides; the charges were thrown out by the Islamabad high court a few weeks later. Some of Khan’s aides and senior party members have been temporarily detained. A television channel sympathetic to Khan was taken off the air, and journalists associated with it have reported feeling pressured to leave the country. In October, one prominent journalist in self-imposed exile in Kenya was killed in murky circumstances outside Nairobi. Khan alleged that the journalist, Arshad Sharif, was shot in a “target killing,” saying that Sharif had been under threat while in Pakistan for, among other things, investigating corruption cases against the PML-N and PPP. And on October 21, the country’s election commission disqualified Khan from contesting elections for five years on charges of corruption. The legal case appears to be flimsy, and Khan has challenged it in court.
None of these tactics is particularly original; Nawaz Sharif, Khan’s predecessor and the brother of the sitting prime minister, Shahbaz Sharif, was disqualified for life from holding office in Pakistan in 2017 by the Supreme Court on charges of not disclosing his personal income. But while Sharif left the country in 2019—he rules his party (and some suggest the government) from London—Khan has stayed following his own removal from office and pursued a single-minded quest to return to power.
For both sides, the next general election, constitutionally required to be held by the fall of 2023, looms large. If countrywide elections were held today, Khan’s party would in all probability win, with one caveat: Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy, and Khan’s choice of candidates would matter. In rural constituencies, patronage politics still reign supreme, and family dynasties hold sway. Khan wants elections to be held as soon as possible to capitalize on his current momentum. He has called for the long march to reconvene in Rawalpindi later this week; he has said previously that his party will continue to stage sit-ins until the government announces the dates of the next national election. As the ruling party, the PML-N, on the other hand, would rather wait as long as possible to hold elections. Since the party would likely be blamed for the country’s current troubles, its leaders hope to see the economy improve and inflationary pressures ease (and, not least, corruption charges closed against several of them) before voters head to the polls.
These calculations are further complicated by the military, which has now overtly entered the fray. In response to Khan’s allegations regarding the death of Sharif in Kenya, the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s leading intelligence agency, held an unprecedented press conference that denied Khan’s claims. The military has also publicly rejected Khan’s allegations regarding its involvement in his November shooting. But it is clear that the military perceives Khan as a formidable, even existential threat, capable of unleashing very large-scale popular anger against it and undermining its unquestionable dominance over Pakistan. The generals find themselves decidedly on the back foot.
Khan’s campaign against the political establishment has left the country more bitterly divided than ever, each side in its own echo chamber. By making the fight against corruption and dynastic politics the central pillar of his platform and using it to attack both the PML-N and PPP, Khan has recast Pakistan’s politics as an existential battle. The government, in turn, has tried to attack Khan’s credibility and tarnish his image. Competition could get heated in the past when the PML-N and the PPP were each other’s main rivals, but it never had such high stakes or seemed to have so divided Pakistanis.
The clash between Khan and the government and the military has become all-consuming in Pakistan’s media and public sphere. It has unfolded while the country has lurched from crisis to crisis. It has made Pakistan’s economic struggles—with record-high inflation and dwindling foreign reserves—worse by increasing uncertainty, diverting attention away from policy solutions, and distracting badly from the necessary response to the late summer floods, which submerged a third of the country. Apart from a short time at the height of the flooding, when the government focused its attention on relief efforts in devastated areas, this battle for power has remained the central focus of the government, Khan’s party, the military, and the media. The sense of instability and constant jockeying for position seem likely to continue until the next election and may intensify if General Bajwa’s successor (due to be announced by the prime minister this month as the general’s tenure expires) is someone Khan does not favor. It may spill over into more violence; after all, Pakistan is a country with a tragic history of political assassinations.
Paradoxically, Khan would probably not enjoy his current level of support had he not been toppled in April. It seems likely that his popularity would have dwindled in the face of the economic crisis and that he would have faced major headwinds in the next election. From the point of view of the current coalition government and the military establishment, then, Khan’s surging popularity has likely brought into question the wisdom of the campaign to remove him last spring.
Unfortunately for Pakistanis, this incessant political combat has left little room for substance. Neither side has a concrete economic plan that would take Pakistan out of its recurring debt crises and its reliance on foreign donors. Politics may be Pakistanis’ favorite pastime, but they are still starved for good choices in terms of their country’s leadership. No matter who comes into power in the next election, the underlying realities of Pakistan’s economic situation and state of development are unlikely to change.
It is unclear how this power struggle will end. Backdoor talks between Khan and the military seem to have failed. At various points in the seven months since Khan lost power, political tensions have escalated to the point of near implosion, such as in August when it seemed Khan might be arrested under terrorism charges or the night after he was shot in November, when his outraged supporters took to the streets across the country. What is clear is that Khan is the greatest threat Pakistan’s establishment has ever seen and that this unstable year in Pakistani politics has not yet reached its denouement.