Pakistan’s Imran Khan tries to grab a win from behind

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – As a sportsman, Imran Khan led an underdog team from Pakistan to victory at the Cricket World Cup. Now he’s capitalizing on that competitive spirit as he attempts to come from behind to win a vote that will determine his fate as prime minister.

Mr Khan faces a vote of no confidence in Parliament, expected to take place on April 4, which will decide whether he remains in office.

The numbers stacked heavily against the 69-year-old leader’s slim majority in Parliament. At least a dozen MPs from his own party have said they are failing him, and other parties in his governing coalition have signaled they are ready to switch sides. And Pakistan’s powerful military, which has backed his rise to power, has grown cold to him.

He hopes to demonstrate his support with a large rally in the capital on Sunday. Some of those who have met with him in recent days say he told them he would not be stepping down.

Mr Khan challenged the vote against him in court, arguing that lawmakers must not attack their party. He is also trying to persuade opposition MPs to side with him. Mr Khan says the opposition’s attempt to oust him has stirred up his supporters. He could call for early elections.

“I see an Imran Khan I haven’t seen in 15, 20 years. He’s at his best when faced with a big challenge,” said one maintainer. “He’s enjoying it.”

Imran Khan raises his arms in triumph during Pakistan’s victory over England in the 1992 Cricket World Cup final.


Photo:

Joe Mann/Allsport/Getty Images

Mr Khan was a charismatic hero for Pakistanis on the cricket field, but he has proved deeply divisive as a politician. His politics were increasingly obscured by his religious beliefs. He says his goal is to set up an Islamic welfare state and portray his opponents not only as crooked but also as evil. His third – and current – marriage was to his spiritual guide.

“God is telling Muslims to stand up for good and stand up against evil,” Mr Khan said in a video message to his supporters this week. “A gang of thieves that has been plundering this country for 30 years, committing corruption and sending the proceeds abroad has come together.”

Mr Khan has a base of ardent supporters, but swing voters have turned to his main rival, three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was 19 points ahead of popularity in a poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan in January.

Government officials in Quetta, Pakistan, protested rising inflation this month.


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Jamal Taraqai/Shutterstock

The biggest concern for voters is inflation, the poll showed, which has plagued Mr Khan’s tenure, fueled by more expensive imports as the rupee has plummeted. An official price index of 51 major items, including groceries and fuel, released on March 24 showed annual inflation at 16%.

External debt has skyrocketed and the continuation of an International Monetary Fund bailout is in doubt as the government enacted fuel subsidies and a tax amnesty before getting IMF approval.

Mr Khan’s party says it should be given credit for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused Pakistan fewer deaths and less economic damage than neighboring India and many other countries. The government has increased spending on the poor and allowed people to use private hospitals at government expense. It also means that the economy is starting to turn around.

As prime minister, Mr Khan brought corruption charges against dozens of his opponents, although none of those charges resulted in a conviction. He calls them rats and refuses to shake hands with them. That aggressive style, and what critics call hypocrisy as he surrounds himself with many familiar faces in Pakistani politics while professing a new approach, mean he is revered and vilified in equal measure.

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The prime minister’s party has credited Pakistan’s achievements in responding to the pandemic.


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Nadeem Khawar/Shutterstock

Mr Khan started playing for the national cricket team as a teenager and went on to become captain and one of the greatest players of all time. He is also a successful philanthropist, raising funds to start a cancer hospital and university.

But his path into politics following his retirement from cricket has been far more difficult. He spent 22 years in opposition trying to break Pakistan’s two-party system as the self-proclaimed Mr Clean in one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

As the 2018 election drew near, Mr Khan was in his 60s and his chances for power were dwindling, his aides say. At this point he made two important compromises in order to rise to power. First, he picked up a number of politicians who had previously hopping from party to party and whom he had vilified for years as corrupt. Some of those politicians have now turned against him.

The second thing he did, opponents say, was the decision to work with the military, which helped cement his support in the crucial electoral battlefield of Punjab province, home to half the country’s population. He and the military deny they worked together to help him win.

The current challenge to him is only possible because the military has remained neutral, opposition lawmakers say, effectively abandoning Mr Khan and freeing his supporters in Parliament to abandon ship. The military, which denies any interference in politics, has staged several coups and, even when not formally in power, claims a dominant behind-the-scenes role in policy-making.

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Imran Khan, third from left to Pakistan’s president and senior military officials, has had to deal with tensions with armed forces leaders.


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Anjum Naveed/Associated Press

Mr Khan has been at odds with the armed forces over key appointments and his government’s performance. His aides say the military leadership also grew dissatisfied with his increasingly anti-Western policies, aligning the country more closely with China and, more recently, Russia. When the Taliban toppled the US-backed government in Kabul, he said Afghanistan had “broke the shackles of slavery”. He was visiting President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on the day Russia invaded Ukraine last month. The military, which relies on American equipment from decades of alliance with Washington, does not want to alienate the United States and other Western powers.

“We are closely following developments in Pakistan,” a US State Department spokeswoman said. “We respect and support Pakistan’s constitutional process and rule of law.” President Biden has not called Mr Khan since taking office, which is viewed as a snub in Pakistan.

It is widely believed that Mr Khan retains base support in the army, meaning the move against him is not without risk for the armed forces.

Opposition politicians say they are pouncing now because they fear Mr Khan could elect an army chief later this year who will again skew the election in his favour.

Pakistan has never had a prime minister serve a full five-year term. Mr. Khan’s is scheduled to end in mid-2023. Tensions between Mr Khan’s government and the military follow a pattern that has been playing out in Pakistani politics for decades.

“After a couple of years, a prime minister tries to assert his authority, there’s a disagreement, and then there’s a breaking point,” said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency. a think tank. “We saw that with almost perfect regularity.”

write to Saeed Shah at saeed.shah@wsj.com

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https://www.wsj.com/articles/pakistans-imran-khan-tries-to-pull-off-a-come-from-behind-victory-11648376084 Pakistan’s Imran Khan tries to grab a win from behind

Ethan Gach

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