A charismatic 70-year-old retired cricketer with his leg in a cast poses one of the greatest challenges to the dominance of Pakistan’s military in decades.
Pakistan’s 500,000-strong armed forces have long played a decisive role at the heart of the country’s politics, intervening in everything from coups to behind-the-scenes string-pulling in a system rarely questioned by civilian leaders.
But since a gunman pumped three bullets into him last week, former prime minister Imran Khan has become the biggest threat to this status quo in years — by implicating the military in the attempt on his life.
In a searing speech, Khan accused Major General Faisal Naseer of colluding with arch-rival prime minister Shehbaz Sharif to try and kill him. Khan called on army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to investigate Naseer.
His allegations have set up a rare public showdown between the wildly popular leader and the most dominant institution in Pakistan. If successful, many analysts believe that Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf party will win the next general election, which has to be held in 2023, bringing their leader back to office with far greater clout less than a year after he was ousted in a no-confidence vote.
“Imran is at the peak of his power right now, especially after this assassination attempt,” said Vali Nasr, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University and former US government adviser on Pakistan. “The military has proved that it’s not capable of dealing with this . . . The more he challenges the military, the more popular he gets.”
Both Sharif and the armed forces strongly deny Khan’s allegations over the shooting, with the army calling them “baseless and irresponsible”. “No one will be allowed to defame the institution or its soldiers with impunity,” it added.
The military has loomed large over Pakistani life ever since its independence from British rule in 1947, when the country was carved out of modern-day India as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims.
While generals have ruled openly through coups and martial law, political scientists said that in recent years they have opted to influence politics from behind the scenes. This system, rarely questioned by the country’s leaders, has prompted political scientists to call Pakistan a “hybrid” democracy that blends civilian electoral politics with military rule. The military denies that it intervenes in politics.
Many believe the armed forces, whose interests span everything from security to business, even quietly helped Khan’s rise to power in 2018 on a welfarist, anti-corruption platform, something both sides deny.
The relationship soured while Khan was in office, however, when he challenged the military’s position on vital issues, including the selection of a new intelligence chief last year.
The fallout, combined with Pakistan’s worsening economic outlook, paved the way for his removal in April, with the military’s tacit assent, according to officials.
But if they expected Khan to fade into obscurity, this proved a dramatic miscalculation. With the economy in crisis under a painful IMF programme, the PTI leader has railed against the mismanagement and alleged venality of ruling elites, transforming his party into a unique movement with enough clout to confront the generals.
“Imran Khan’s popularity is significantly higher than anybody anticipated,” said Azeem Ibrahim, a director at the New Lines Institute think-tank in Washington and a former adviser to Khan. The PTI leader has successfully pushed a narrative “that the country is in chaos and people in power are manipulating the system to benefit themselves”.
Sharif and his allies accuse him of recklessly inflaming political tensions for his own gain and he faces several legal cases, including over the alleged misdeclaration of assets, that could bar him from contesting elections.
Some critics, however, view Khan’s attacks on the military as a cynical negotiating ploy by lambasting them in public to force them to back him.
“This is just a tactic to mount pressure on the military to concede to his demands, which are to remove the coalition government and force early elections,” said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistan diplomat. “Far from opposing military intervention in politics, he wants the army to intervene on his behalf.”
The stakes are particularly high ahead of the selection this month of a new army chief, following the retirement of Bajwa.
With the winning candidate able to influence Pakistani politics for years to come, analysts argued that Khan’s attempts to bring down Sharif have acquired particular urgency as the former prime minister wants to have a say in the decision.
However emphatic Khan’s challenges appear, though, analysts said there was little appetite for overhauling the status quo of “hybrid” rule in the long term.
“While this episode will weaken the current system in Pakistan in some respects,” said Elizabeth Threlkeld, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington think-tank, and former US diplomat in Pakistan, “elites across the political, bureaucratic and military spectrum remain invested in its perpetuation.”