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Sensemaker: The return of Imran Khan

Sensemaker: The return of Imran Khan

What just happened

Long stories short

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  • Russia’s Gazprom told some European buyers it cannot guarantee gas supplies (more below).
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The return of Imran Khan

Only three months ago, Imran Khan was ousted from power, abandoned by his allies and replaced by a man he had derided as a crook. The former cricketer’s defenestration by a parliamentary no-confidence vote put paid to nearly four years of premiership and ended his fairy tale transition from sporting hero to prime minister. Always charismatic and always combative, he vowed a return, saying he was the victim of a foreign conspiracy. Yet for all his punchy rhetoric, his fate at the time seemed uncertain.

What a difference the intervening months have made. In local elections, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has now trounced the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party led by Shehbaz Sharif that engineered his April downfall. National elections must be held by late 2023 and Khan suddenly looks back on winning form.

What happened?

Campaigning and conspiracy theories: Ever since his removal from power. Khan has cried foul. He claimed foreign powers, namely America, engineered his departure because they were angry at his refusal to bow to Washington’s foreign policy demands. Washington’s shadowy plot was abetted by corrupt Pakistani political traitors. Pakistan’s military, which often acts as kingmaker, were out to get him even as they insisted on their political neutrality, he declared.

America has denied all this as nonsense. Khan has provided no evidence to substantiate his allegations. Diplomats give his claims no credence. Yet in rally after rally his supporters have lapped it up and turned up to support him in hefty numbers.

Fumbling government: Meanwhile, the PML-N government that replaced Khan has floundered. Sharif has long traded on his reputation for competence, but when faced with Pakistan’s economic woes, his party dithered as the situation got worse. Inflation and debt are high. Foreign currency reserves are low and falling. Ministers warned the country could follow Sri Lanka into default, but they also baulked at making painful reforms in order to get an IMF bailout. Finally Sharif’s government bit the bullet and cut subsidies.

By the numbers:

  • The rupee slid from 186 to the dollar when Khan was ousted, to 214 to the dollar by the time he won the Punjab by-elections.
  • The price of fuel leapt by nearly 60 per cent in a matter of weeks as Sharif scrapped subsidies.
  • The overall inflation rate hit a 14-year high of 21.3 per cent in June. The state bank forecasts the rate hovering just under 20 per cent for the rest of the fiscal year.

PML-N leaders say they were partly punished at the ballot box because they had been forced to make painful economic decisions. Pakistan’s next general election is scheduled for no later than October 2023. Khan says he wants them earlier. “The only way forward from here is to hold free and transparent elections,” he said. “Any other way will only lead to increased political uncertainty and further economic chaos.”

Khan for the win?

The former cricketer’s opponents can no longer dismiss his rallies and charisma as frothy populism. The Punjab polls have shown that the fervour translates into votes. What is even more remarkable is he seems to have won despite his outspoken attacks on the military, which was widely viewed as bringing him to power in 2018 before turning against him.

Asfandyar Mir, of the United States Institute of Peace, said the result was “a bigger political win for the PTI than their tainted 2018 win, which puts Imran Khan on track to return to power stronger than before”.

Sharif now faces a fight for his survival and the odds of a remarkable political comeback have shortened dramatically.

Ben Farmer has been reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2018.


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Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what you think. Email: sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Ben Farmer

Additional reporting by Paul Caruana Galizia, Ella Hill, James Wilson and Sebastian Hervas-Jones.

Photographs Getty Images

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