How Imran Khan became the man who divided Pakistan – The Guardian

From cricket star to ousted PM, Khan is an anti-establishment rebel to some and a corrupt force for destruction to others
Imran Khan is often regarded as the most divisive man in Pakistan.
For some, the former superstar cricketer turned prime minister, who was toppled from power last April and arrested in a corruption case on Tuesday, is the anti-establishment saviour that Pakistan has long been waiting for.
Yet for others, his alleged corruption, economic ineptitude and “scorched earth” political tactics since he was removed from office are the reason Pakistan is facing an unprecedented political, economic and constitutional crisis that is tearing the country apart.
Khan first shot to fame in Pakistan as the Oxford-educated heart-throb who brought World Cup cricketing glory to the country in 1992. He married into British aristocracy, tying the knot with journalist Jemima Goldsmith in 1995, but soon began to make his political ambitions known back home.
In 1996, he co-formed and became leader of a new political party known as the Pakistan Movement for Justice, or Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI). The ambitions of PTI were to bring democracy, progress and expertise to a country that had long been held back by interference – or outright control – by the military and the dominance of a few powerful political dynasties.
As he remained in political opposition for over a decade, Khan began to adopt a nationalist agenda that drew heavily on Islamist and anti-western narratives, repositioning himself as a devout Muslim and drawing a stark line beneath his former reputation as a westernised continental playboy. He spoke out against the US “war on terror” and fought elections on an anti-corruption agenda, but in 2014 was accused of corruption by the co-founder of his party in a case that drags on today.
But many believe it was the backing of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, who had ruled Pakistan for decades – both directly through military coups and behind the scenes as the country’s political puppet masters – that finally brought Khan to power.
The military had fallen out with the dynasties that dominated the country’s political landscape and began to look for a new face to throw their tacit support behind. According to those in his party, Khan became the “blue-eyed boy” of the military and by 2018 he was elected prime minister by a slim majority. Khan denies the military had any role in his election.
According to those within his government, the military “called the shots” during Khan’s first few years in power. Generals were given control of important parts of government, pro-military policies were passed and the media were tightly controlled. There was also a heavy crackdown on Khan’s opponents, with many put into prison.
But in 2021, cracks began to show in the relationship. An emboldened Khan began to resent the control of the military, and began to attempt to resist it, saying his government was being “blackmailed”. Meanwhile the military were unhappy with Pakistan’s declining economic situation. As they began to quietly withdraw their support, Khan’s government publicly weakened.
Despite Khan’s best efforts to prevent a vote of no-confidence happening in April 2022, first by unconstitutionally dissolving parliament and then by threatening martial law, he was ousted from power after dozens of PTI MPs withdrew their support.
Yet Khan’s political capital soared after he was removed as PM. As he sought a return to the highest office, he began to position himself as an anti-establishment rebel and launched a tirade against the very same generals who it is said brought him to power, upending Pakistani politics in the process.
In speeches and on social media he has blamed the military for orchestrating a “western-backed conspiracy” to topple him and made vitriolic speeches against the country’s most powerful military figures who were previously seen as untouchable. In November, after he was shot by a gunman at a rally in Punjab, he openly accused the government and military of colluding with foreign powers to have him assassinated. He is now facing dozens of cases relating to corruption and sedition, which he alleges are politically motivated. In March, he managed to evade arrest by escaping to a neighbour’s house.
Critics have accused him of stirring up political turmoil for selfish ends. But just as thousands took to the streets after he lost power, Khan’s enduring popularity was evident hours after his arrest on Tuesday when his many diehard loyalists took to the streets in protests across country. Echoing Khan’s rhetoric, many raged against the military and called for early general elections, due in October, to take place. If they happen – and Khan is allowed to contest – it is widely thought he will win.


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