Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is hoping for a comeback.
“I feel a tragic sense of loss,” said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of political and political studies at Pakistan’s National University of Sciences and Technology. He and his family voted for Khan in 2018, Hussain said, but are disillusioned with what they saw as Khan’s domineering behavior and scorched-earth tactics to cling to power.
“Imran felt that he was above the law and the constitution. He was a famous sportsman but he refused to accept defeat with dignity,” Hussain said, referring to Khan’s fame in cricket some 35 years ago. “He talked about creating a true democracy and an ideal society, but instead his greatest legacy was leaving society divided and the economy in shambles. It is deeply disappointing.”
Khan rose with a promise that he would crack down on the power and corruption of Pakistan’s wealthy political elites, an issue that drew strong support from younger, educated and middle-class Pakistanis when he was elected in 2018.
That support was evident Sunday night when Khan, the charismatic former captain of the Pakistan national cricket team, called for rallies following his impeachment. By 10pm, large enthusiastic crowds had gathered in three major cities – Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi – and smaller ones across the country. Television footage showed thousands of people mingling in city squares, dancing, clapping and singing, ‘Who will save Pakistan? Imran Khan, Imran Khan.”
Khan did not appear at any of the rallies in person, but he sent out a flurry of enthusiastic tweets that went viral. “Never in our history have such masses come out so spontaneously and in such numbers and opposed the crook-led imported government,” he tweeted after midnight.
But to some extent, Khan’s relentless attacks on elites backfired, rallying a hodgepodge of rival factions to seek his removal. By courting disgruntled Khan allies, his opponents garnered enough votes in Parliament to bring him down.
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“Imran Khan deserves credit for defeating dynastic political forces,” said Ayaz Amir, an analyst and former lawmaker, a reference to the families that have wielded political power in Pakistan since its inception in 1947. Now, he said, she will have to share power with the unwieldy array of former enemies who “have nothing in common except opposition to Khan. It will be very difficult for them to cope with these economic problems.”
The process of installing new leaders is already underway. Shehbaz Sharif, 70, a career politician who heads the Pakistan Muslim League, is expected to become interim prime minister in a parliamentary vote on Monday. Sharif is the brother of three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was jailed for corruption in 2018.
Shehbaz Sharif is also believed to be the front runner for prime minister in this autumn’s election, although a senior adviser to Khan, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, has also submitted nomination papers to run for the post.
Khan has also made it clear that he intends to run for office again. Some observers suggested that while his weak traits – impatience, poor managerial skills and unwillingness to cultivate allies – undermined his ability to govern, as an articulate and passionate speaker he was always at the top of his game when challenging outside power.
“Khan’s ouster will continue to haunt the new government,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst in Lahore. “To oust and replace a leader is one thing. Successful governance is another. Sharif faces hard times.”
Now that Khan is out of power, no one underestimates his potential for a comeback.
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“Khan has shown himself to be a demagogue who has done little to address serious issues,” Amir said. “It is now, in these months before the elections, for him to look inside, learn from his mistakes, reorganize his party and play the role of a vibrant opposition,” Amir said.
The other rallying cry that Khan is increasingly using to his advantage is anti-Americanism, and it is already emerging as a major theme in his likely attempts at a political comeback. In recent weeks, as he struggled to stay in power, he accused US officials of colluding with his domestic opponents in a plot against his government.
The allegation, based on what Khan described as a secret diplomatic document proving the US conspiracy, became a major factor in his efforts to remain in power. First, he managed to overturn a parliamentary no-confidence vote against him by claiming that rival lawmakers were being backed by a “foreign conspiracy”.
Later, faced with the likely defeat after the Supreme Court ordered the vote to be held, he denounced the attempt at an “imported government” in Pakistan. As of Saturday night, he was still trying to stop the vote and demanded the document be shown to senior officials, including the court’s judges.
American officials have repeatedly denied the allegations. But US influence has long been, and likely will remain, a political rallying cry in Pakistan. On Sunday night, many protesters at pro-Khan rallies shouted, “America’s friends are traitors,” referring to anti-Khan politicians in Pakistan.
“This conspiracy has given Khan’s supporters another reason to gain strength,” said Ikram Khatana, 32, an activist in Khan’s Justice Party, speaking over the din of a boisterous rally in the northwestern city of Peshawar. “We are here to support him and more and more people are joining us now. If the elections are held again, we know he will hit back with even more force.”
Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.