With fiery critiques of his rivals and the U.S., the former prime minister has drawn thousands to rallies across Pakistan and stoked fears of more political turmoil.
April 15, 2022
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Tens of thousands flooded the streets across the country. Protesters brawled in a small mosque. And, at the upscale Islamabad Marriott Hotel, a fist fight broke out at an Iftar dinner between a lawmaker in Pakistan’s new government and a supporter of the recently ousted prime minister, Imran Khan.
It has been a tumultuous week in Pakistan, where Mr. Khan was removed from office in a no-confidence vote in Parliament early Sunday morning, capping a political crisis that pushed the country’s fragile democracy to the brink. For weeks, Mr. Khan, a former cricket star, had unleashed fiery denunciations of his opponents at large rallies, demonizing them as traitors in an attempt to block the vote.
But just days after being forced to step down, Mr. Khan was back on the campaign trail, leaving many in Pakistan bracing wearily for a new chapter of political turmoil.
He is fighting for a comeback after losing the support of top military leaders, embracing the inflammatory tactics he used for years to whip up unrest and keep his predecessors off balance.
“Do we want to be the slaves of the United States or do we want real freedom?” Mr. Khan asked at a large rally on Wednesday in Peshawar, where tens of thousands of his supporters waved his party’s flags. “My youth, get ready, I will be out on the streets with you in every city until we force them to hold elections.”
Mr. Khan’s repeated assertion that a United States-backed conspiracy pushed him from office has become a centerpiece of his new campaign, which he hopes will force the new government to announce early elections this fall.
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The rally, Mr. Khan’s first public appearance since stepping down, came as more than 100 of his party’s legislators resigned this week from the National Assembly — a move many saw as an attempt to undercut the legitimacy of the new government.
The heightened tension has stoked fears that unrest could seize Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 220 million people, just as the new government grapples with soaring inflation and tries to repair the country’s delicate relationship with the United States in Mr. Khan’s wake.
“A country where the many wounds of division were already deep and deeply felt has now become even more divided with new lines of polarizations having emerged,” said Adil Najam, the dean of Boston University’s School of Global Studies and an expert on Pakistan’s politics. “What we are seeing is not just pre-election rhetoric, but a deep societal division which is not going to go away.”
Those tensions surfaced in ways large and small across the country.
At the Marriott in the capital on Tuesday, an elderly man who supports Mr. Khan shouted insults at a leader of one opposition party now in government and a defector from Mr. Khan’s own party, calling them “turncoats,” according to one of the lawmakers and a video of the incident that circulated on social media. The lawmakers then threw a drink at the man and assaulted him.
A day earlier, protesters supporting Mr. Khan stormed into a mosque in northern Pakistan and started a brawl, after opposition supporters in the mosque screamed their own chants slamming Mr. Khan, according to party leaders and videos on social media.
Those clashes reflect the anger boiling over across the country between those who blame Mr. Khan for their crushing economic woes and those who feel deeply wronged by the officials who ousted him.
Sitting with friends in a sprawling taxi park in the capital, Islamabad, Ijaz Ahmed, 30, a toll operator, railed against Mr. Khan’s opposition amid a cacophony of honks and the hum of motorcycle engines. Mr. Ahmed voted for Mr. Khan in 2018, as did much of his base, largely because of frustration with the political dynasties — including the family of Shehbaz Sharif, the current prime minister — that had run Pakistan for years amid corruption scandals.
“They’re traitors,” Mr. Ahmed said, alluding to the supposed conspiracy with the United States to oust Mr. Khan. “Even if there’s inflation in Imran’s time, it’s better than giving a vote to traitors!”
As he spoke, dozens of men swarmed around him, leading to a shouting match between Khan loyalists and critics.
“Our kids are dying of hunger and you’re praising Imran Khan and his inflation!” yelled Siraj Khan, 30, a motorbike courier who said he had sunk into debt in recent years. His earnings have dropped by a third, while food prices have risen, and his relatives need him to repay money that he borrowed.
“Sometimes I’ve thought about committing suicide,” he said.
Some of the public’s recent anger has been directed at powerful military leaders who withdrew their support for Mr. Khan last year, paving the way for his ouster and extending the country’s record of no prime minister completing a full five-year term.
Over the past week, hashtags critical of the army have trended on social media platforms. Several officials in Mr. Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, posted angry messages on Twitter against Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the army chief, with whom Mr. Khan clashed.
Though he fell out with top brass over disputes about foreign policy and the military’s leadership, Mr. Khan retains substantial support among military ranks. In recent days, many retired military officials, who see Mr. Khan as honest and identify with his anti-American sentiment, have participated in his public rallies.
“I think a vast majority of retired and serving armed forces personnel support Imran Khan’s narrative because they see him as the polar opposite of the traditionally corrupt politicians,” Omar Mahmood Hayat, a retired three-star general, said. “He is himself financially incorruptible.”
Wary of the potential potency of the anti-army campaign, General Bajwa, the army chief, called a rare meeting this week of Formation Commanders, which includes two-star and three-star officers. Soon after, the media wing of the Pakistan Armed Forces issued a strongly worded statement asserting that the commanders stood behind General Bajwa and agreed with his decision to “uphold the law and the Constitution.”
The army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Babar Iftikhar, called the social media campaign against the army “illegal, immoral and against national interest” in a news conference on Thursday and said that such attempts would not succeed.
But the military’s efforts to rein in its own ranks have done little to squash the public tide of anger it faces — a rare sentiment shared by Mr. Khan’s supporters and opponents alike. And some worry that if the military’s top brass tries to slow Mr. Khan’s momentum in the coming months, as they are accused of doing to his opponents in the 2018 campaign, it will set off yet more outrage and unrest.
Many Pakistanis are already exhausted by the endless cycles of political upheaval and are anxious about the future.
At an open-air market in the center of Islamabad, Mansoor Tariq, 38, sat in front of his small shop, rolls of bright blue, yellow and orange fabric stacked neatly behind him. Mr. Tariq voted for Mr. Khan in 2018 and said he would vote for him again.
But as another campaign cycle begins, he worries about unrest forcing his shop to close or making the Pakistani rupee plummet — financial burdens he can barely manage on top of the double-digit inflation.
“Imran won’t let the new government govern this country peacefully, he won’t let Shehbaz Sharif enjoy his premiership,” he said. “If these protests start turning violent, then I’ll worry; I know my business will suffer.”