Pakistan’s prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, has accused the former premier Imran Khan of being the “the biggest liar on the face of the earth” and injecting poison into society to “dangerously polarise the electorate” after he was toppled from power earlier this year.
Speaking in his first interview from Pakistan since he took over as prime minister in April, Sharif, 70, spoke unsparingly of the “damage” that Khan, the former cricket superstar who ruled Pakistan from 2018, had done to the country in both domestic and foreign affairs.
Pakistan is currently in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis, as it grapples with mounting inflation, sky-high foreign debt, declining foreign currency reserves and now more than $30bn of damage after the country was hit by the worst flooding in its history in August, a climate crisis-driven disaster that left 1,600 dead and millions without shelter and clean water.
Sharif, who is the younger brother of the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and part of one of Pakistan’s most powerful political dynasties, called Khan “a liar and a cheat” whose policies had left the economy in ruins.
He accused Khan, who ran on an anti-corruption manifesto, of conducting the country’s affairs to suit his own personal agenda “in a manner which can be only described as the most inexperienced, self-centred, egotistical, immature politician in the history of this country”.
Khan, who still retains huge popularity among swathes of voters, was removed from power in April this year after a vote of no confidence which saw many of his allies in parliament turn against him. Khan was found to have violated the constitution in an attempt to stop the vote going ahead, and he also threatened to impose martial law rather than hand over power to the opposition coalition.
Khan made repeated allegations that the vote was a “foreign conspiracy” against him by the US and claimed to have a diplomatic cable to prove it, despite public denials by the US, the military and figures in government, and in private meetings with diplomats.
The issue was further inflamed last week after audio recordings of private informal conversations, held by Khan in his office when he was prime minister, were leaked on to the internet. The audio leaks allegedly captured Khan discussing how to fabricate a conspiracy about a foreign threat, with him heard saying they would “play with the cable”.
Sharif said the leaked audios were “an irrefutable endorsement that he [Khan] is the biggest liar on the face of the earth. I’m not saying this with a sense of glee but a sense of embarrassment and concern. My country’s image has been been damaged hugely by these lies told out of mean personal interest.”
Since he was removed from power, Khan, now the leader of the opposition, has been stirring up his millions of loyal supporters at rallies and speeches across the country, peddling conspiracy theories and accusing the Sharif-led coalition government of being a corrupt and “imported” government from the west. He has pledged to fight the next election, and is planning a “surprise” march on the capital, Islamabad, in the coming weeks.
Khan’s populist narrative has proved highly effective, and also become a thorn in the side of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment who, despite their claims of staying out of politics, gave Khan their tacit backing in 2018 and are seen to have enabled his election. In political and diplomatic circles, Khan’s fall from power is widely linked to a disintegration in his relationship with the military top brass. Since he was toppled, Khan has turned his supporters against the army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, in particular.
Sharif, who has always worked with the military establishment, acknowledged he faced significant challenges ruling Pakistan while Khan was mobilising on the streets. Several of the economic decisions taken by Sharif’s government, such as raising fuel taxes, have proved very unpopular.
“Never before was I concerned about our country’s future,” said Sharif. “Imran Khan has injected infinite amount of poison in this society and made it hugely polarised as never before … he is distorting facts and creating hate.”
How to deal with Khan has become a major source of contention in the ruling coalition, known as the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). Many close to Sharif have publicly criticised the leadership for not arresting Khan even after warrants have been issued.
Speaking to the Guardian, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, the Islamic rightwing politician who is one of the most powerful figures in the PDM government, said: “Our main complaint is that Imran Khan, who has been declared as the violator of the constitution by the court … why he is not being arrested by the government?” Maryam Nawaz, who is Nawaz Sharif’s daughter and vice-president of their party, PLM-N, told reporters on Sunday that Khan should be “behind bars by now”.
Khan has appeared to welcome the threats. “I am ready to go to jail and my nation as well. We are not afraid of jail,” he told a rally on Sunday.
Sharif would not be drawn into conjecture about Khan’s arrest but his cabinet has approved a legal inquiry into the audio leak revelations and Sharif said Khan “has to be held accountable for all these conscious criminal acts”.
Sharif spoke of his efforts to rebuild relations with several of Pakistan’s foreign allies, which were seen to nosedive after 2018. Sharif said he had been “shocked” at the UN general assembly in New York earlier this month when several world leaders, who he refused to name, had personally raised Khan’s conduct. “Some leaders told me in person about his personality,” said Sharif. “They told me he was rude, he told lies and he is a ‘narcissist’, quote unquote.”
Though anti-American sentiment is still rife on the streets, Sharif’s administration has been actively working to mend ties with the US. The government recently agreed a $450m (£400m) deal with the US for F-16 military aircraft, despite the country’s dire financial straits, and Biden and Sharif briefly met at the UN in New York, where Biden pledged to support Pakistan in the wake of the devastation of the floods. The foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto, returned from a US trip this week and Bajwa, the army chief, is currently in Washington.
“Khan has damaged Pakistan’s relations with the United States for no rhyme or reason,” said Sharif.
Yet he also made it clear he would be reaffirming Pakistan’s close relationship with China, which reportedly suffered under Khan after he stalled on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a multibillion-dollar infrastructure project that is a cornerstone of China’s belt and road initiative (BRI).
There are concerns CPEC is leading Pakistan into a debt trap with China, and mounting local opposition has led to CPEC projects and workers being hit by bomb blasts. Yet, despite the security concerns, and China itself said to be rolling back BRI, Sharif vowed to continue with the project, and will visit China in November, describing the country as “one of the most trusted friends of Pakistan”.
“Make no mistake, CPEC is a project which is not only good for Pakistan’s wellbeing but for the whole region,” he said.
Indeed, many of his policies appear to be a direct continuation of those implemented by his elder brother Nawaz Sharif, who served three terms as prime minister from 1990. In 2017, Sharif was disqualified from office and sentenced to 10 years in jail on corruption charges he said were politically motivated. He was given temporary bail to travel to London for medical treatment in 2021 and never came back. He is now said to control the party from his property in central London, with Sharif making two visits in the past month.
Sharif was open about his brother’s involvement in government. “Of course I consult Nawaz, he is my leader and my older brother,” he said. “But he has given me completely free rein to make decisions.”
Yet the ascension of the Sharifs to power again, ruling in a coalition alongside members of the powerful Bhutto family – former political rivals who came together with 10 other parties in order to defeat Khan – has led some to criticise the return of so-called dynastic politics which has dominated Pakistan for more than four decades.
Maryam Nawaz, who was caught up in her father Nawaz Sharif’s corruption case and sentenced to jail in 2018, was cleared of charges this week and is now expected to return to politics. Bilawal Bhutto, the current foreign minister, is the son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007 and grandson of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was prime minister in the 1970s. Khan has consistently represented himself as the alternative to such dynastic politics, even though many of his top ministers came from political families.
Sharif vehemently rebuffed the criticism. “It’s about competence: it’s about public support, it’s about people’s trust,” he said. “It’s not about dynasty.”