Ahead of a serious challenge brewing in Pakistan’s lower house, the National Assembly, embattled Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former cricket celebrity, has distanced his country from the United States and strained a fragile domestic political culture with verbal salvos against political rivals.

The opposition, made up of former adversaries, claims to have enough votes to overthrow Khan’s government through a vote of no confidence.

Over a dozen elected members of his own Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party have officially backed the opposition’s motion of no confidence, citing the government’s failure to manage inflation and to govern properly. Some ruling coalition partners have joined forces with the opposition, while others have condemned what they call Khan’s revenge politics.

“Khan had been very harsh on opposition. His language and actions both were very harsh. He was telling opposition would be thrown into the prison, would teach them a lesson, and there are signs that NAB (National Accountability Bureau) was also used for that purpose,” Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of the Islamabad-based think tank Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, said.

Mehboob added, “Opposition was pushed against the wall, and it was a question of their survival.”

The no-confidence vote was set for Friday, March 25, which happened to be the 30th anniversary of Pakistan’s Cricket World Cup victory, which Khan captained in 1992. The proceedings, however, were postponed until Monday.

Rise to power

Khan’s political legacy will persist, whether he stays on the crease and keeps his job or is shown the door before his five-year term is up.

He enchanted a generation of Pakistanis with his cricket achievements, including winning the coveted World Cup; his celebrity stature in London; and, most recently, his love for Islam. Combining this with his anti-Western rhetoric, Khan transformed himself into a radical political celebrity among Pakistan’s overwhelmingly religious youth.

“They (the West) were able to vilify our religion, and yet there was no coherent response from the Muslim world,” Khan told the audience at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s 48th Council of Foreign Ministers Tuesday in Islamabad. He questioned why Islam was equated with terrorism, adding that it was unfortunate that the Muslim world was not able to combat this image.

Khan is sensing that he may lose the upcoming no-confidence vote, and it appears that he is focusing on the next election, said Owais Tohid, a Pakistani journalist who has written for U.S. and European media outlets.

“Addressing huge rallies, Khan is lashing out at America and the European Union, presenting himself as a born leader of the Islamic world, probably like Turkey’s (President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan,” Tohid said.

Amir Mateen, a Pakistani political analyst and TV talk show host, said, “I think the target of his rhetoric against America is largely (the) domestic audience.”

Mateen added, “It’s not just the America. He also talked about EU and, as you know, kind of reprimanded local ambassadors who wrote a letter to the (Pakistani) foreign office. He is in a very precarious situation, and it’s all the outcome of that political vulnerability.”

The letter from Islamabad-based envoys of 22 countries, including EU member states, urged Pakistan to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the U.N.

Stance on Russian invasion, China

On the day Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the attack on Ukraine, Khan was in the Kremlin. Pakistan afterward refrained from participating in a U.N. Security Council vote on a resolution denouncing Russian aggression toward Ukraine.

Khan chastised the 22 envoys for urging Pakistan to denounce Russia. The prime minister was quoted as asking the envoys, “Are we slaves and act according to your wishes?”

Khan attended the Feb. 4 opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Many Western countries, including the U.S., boycotted the ceremony in protest of China’s alleged abuses of Uyghur Muslims in its Xinjiang territory. Khan has stated publicly that he is unaware of human rights atrocities against Muslims in China.

China is Pakistan’s largest investor, with over $60 billion in projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China and Pakistan both frequently brag about their relationship.

Following a meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers in Islamabad, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement Tuesday in which both countries expressed concern about the spillover effects of unilateral sanctions imposed on Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine. Pakistan has not refuted the Chinese statement’s language, but its Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a second statement that calls for a cease-fire and does not address concerns about sanctions against Moscow.

Pleasing home base

On March 20, the prime minister repeated his wish of establishing a “Medina state” for the home audience, a reference to the Muslims’ first caliphate in the seventh century, which Khan, his followers and many Muslims consider a model state.

Some of the nation’s most popular religious figures endorsed the plan. In a video message, famous Islamic TV preacher Tariq Jameel thanked Allah for giving Pakistan a leader who dreams of the “Medina state.”

Ironically, the country’s Human Rights Ministry told parliament in December that more than 14,000 rape cases had been registered across the country since Khan became prime minister in 2018. Sahil, a Pakistan-based non-government organization that tracks sexual assault cases, noted an 11% increase in child rape cases in 2018 compared to the previous year.

Women’s rights groups have criticized Khan for “victim blaming” when he apparently attributed the rise in sexual assaults to how women dressed.  Khan later backtracked, telling PBS “anyone who commits rape… solely, that person is responsible.”

Khan’s “U-turn,” as his political opponents call it, from his lavish celebrity lifestyle in London to his deep dive into religion is reflected in his political narrative. He quotes the Quran, Islam’s holy book, to portray himself as right and others as wrong. At a rally on Sunday, he said that the Quran commands Muslims to support the good and oppose the evil, referring to his opposition.

“God doesn’t say to be neutral,” Khan said.

Political analysts have seen it as a dig at Pakistan’s army generals, who have adopted a neutral stance since Khan’s political troubles began earlier this month. The opposition has long accused the military of aiding Khan, accusations that both the prime minister’s office and the military have denied.

Dealing with inflation

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Khan’s tenure as prime minister is in jeopardy not only because of his rift with the military but also because of rising inflation.

In Pakistan, inflation was recorded at more than 12%. The price spike, the lack of measures to improve the economy, the reported distance between Khan and army generals — and the prime minister’s accountability for rousing the masses — have all been targeted by the opposition. To rub salt in the wounds of the public, Khan delivered a “no ball,” an unforgivable error in cricket, at a massive gathering in Punjab province where he said, “I didn’t join politics to know the prices of ‘aloo’ and ‘tamatar’ (potatoes and tomatoes). I joined it for the sake of the country’s youth.”

Khan’s ambitions are lofty, but his methods have frequently sparked ridicule from the media. He launched a “Murghi Paal” campaign, an Urdu word for “poultry business,” in which he handed tens of thousands of hens to families and youth to stimulate what he dubbed “domestic economy.” That program was implemented to help people out of poverty, but it was met with mockery on social media.

His critics said they did not believe the campaign was a viable solution to Pakistan’s issues in the 21st century.

This story originated in VOA’s Deewa Service. 

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