It will be the moment that Imran Khan has been building up to for weeks. On Saturday, Pakistan’s toppled prime minister and former superstar cricketer will bring his “long march 2.0” to the city of Rawalpindi as he continues to push for early general elections. If a vote is called, Khan insists he will win overwhelmingly.
Khan’s appearance will be his first public outing since an assassination attempt earlier this month, when he was shot in the leg as his march travelled through Punjab. He remains unable to walk so will address the crowds from a wheelchair. According to security agencies, there remains a high risk of another assassination attempt, so Khan will be shielded within a cube of bulletproof glass.
On Saturday, a video was circulating of aides posing with a now-removed blue cast that Khan wore on his right leg after the shooting.
Since Khan was removed as prime minister in April in a vote of no confidence, his popularity has gone from strength to strength just as Pakistan has spiralled further into a state of political crisis. The former PM – known to thrive as an opposition agitator – has mobilised hundreds of thousands of people at his rallies and made speeches filled with incendiary rhetoric.
Khan accused the US government of being behind a conspiracy to remove him from power, though he has recently backtracked and accused the new coalition government led by Shehbaz Sharif of being “imported” and corrupt. But it is Khan’s decision to go up against Pakistan’s mighty military establishment that has gripped the people and left the country reeling.
Khan and the senior aides in his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), have not only accused the military of being responsible for pushing him out of office, but also for having a role in the assassination attempt. Khan unsuccessfully tried to file a police report naming Sharif, the interior minister, Rana Sanaullah Khan, and the senior army general Faisal Naseer as the three conspirators.
“It is no secret that the [military] establishment played a huge role in removing Imran Khan from power, by forcing our allies to abandon him,” said Fawad Chaudhry, a PTI spokesperson. The government and the military have denied this, and the shooter held responsible has said he acted alone.
Khan’s outspoken position is all the more extraordinary given his once entrenched relationship with the military establishment, who have a long history of keeping a stranglehold over Pakistani politics and in the past have taken power through coups.
Yet many believe Khan is once again looking for their backing to return him to power. Khan’s huge appeal, particularly when compared with the declining popularity of the Sharif government, remains his trump card.
Zahid Hussain, a political analyst, said: “Khan is hugely popular while the army position has been weakened and they are on the defensive so they may cave to pressure and talk to him. The military is not neutral, it has never been neutral.”
Khan was dealt a significant blow on Thursday when it was announced that the new army chief, arguably the most powerful position in Pakistan, will be Gen Asim Munir, whom Khan fired from a senior post in 2019. Munir is reported to be apolitical but, said the former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, “to remain out of politics will be a big challenge for the new chief. The army has so much influence in governmental matters, it is so ingrained in the system, that it is difficult and complicated for this to just end”.
For years, Khan was described as the “blue-eyed boy” of the generals. Though he denies it, many within his party say he was elected in 2018 with the help of the military, who are accused of pressuring MPs to join the PTI and rigging the election in his favour.
One senior PTI leader, who is still close to Khan so spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: “The military is cunning and they brought him in power in a way that they could also get him out easily as we were not given the majority.”
Khan’s government operated as a so-called hybrid regime where the military interfered directly, though behind the scenes. “Our politics was outsourced, it was run by ISI,” said the PTI leader, referring to Inter-Services Intelligence, an agency controlled by the military.
Noor Alam Khan, who left the PTI in April having joined from the Pakistan People’s party, said: “There used to be interference from the establishment, lots of calls to politicians forcing them to join a certain party [PTI], vote a certain way.” Since Khan was removed from power, the interference has stopped.
Even Khan recently stated that while in power he received help from military agencies and could not pass bills without their support.
Under the hybrid regime, the army cracked down on media freedom and Khan’s political opponents were imprisoned. Pakistan’s ranking in the Transparency International corruption index slipped a record 20 places from 2019-21 due to “state capture” and an “absence of rule of law”, despite Khan’s election promise to clean up politics.
In 2021, the relationship between Khan and the military, and in particular with the army chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, began to fray over the generals’ concerns that Khan was running the country’s economy into the ground, as inflation soared and the government spent wildly on subsidies on fuel and power.
Khan’s erratic approach to foreign policy, alienating allies such as the US and Saudi Arabia, was also a cause of consternation.
The relationship broke down completely after the military refused to back Khan’s candidates in regional elections, then decided against Khan’s will to transfer Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, the head of the ISI who was helping him run the country.
Despite Khan’s best efforts to prevent a vote of no confidence, it went ahead in April 2022 and he was removed after swathes of his own PTI MPs as well as coalition allies voted against him. Some credited not only the military’s withdrawal of support but also the alleged rampant corruption and disastrous economic policies that had left them unable to face their constituents.
“Imran Khan has two faces,” said Noor Alam Khan. “He is not clean, he is not sincere to the nation and he does not believe in democracy.”
The ferocity with which Khan has since turned against the military appears to have taken the establishment by surprise. Khan criticised the military in speeches, in particular the powerful army chief Bajwa.
On Wednesday night, Bajwa, who retires from his post next week, took the highly unconventional step of openly admitting military interference in politics for the past 70 years. In what appeared to be a pointed response to Khan, Bajwa criticised those building a “false narrative” and said the army had made the decision “it would never interfere in any political matter”.
This was met with scepticism among analysts and politicians. “We’ve heard that too at times before and too many times it simply hasn’t happened,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for south Asia at the Wilson Center thinktank in the US. “Given how deeply entrenched the military is in Pakistan’s political fabric, it would be almost impossible for there to be such a sharp shift.”
Instead, Khan’s fate is likely to rest on whether Munir, the new military chief, is willing to come to the negotiating table. “Ultimately the army wants to deal with the terrible political mess in the country,” said Kugelman. “So the big question now is, do they think that involves some kind of reconciliation with Khan?”