Pakistani soap operas are famous across Asia: revered for their outlandish storylines, high octane drama and larger-than-life heroes. But have you heard the one about the international cricket captain and tabloid staple who rose to become prime minister, fell out with his country’s deep state and then narrowly survived an assassination attempt?
At the moment, the greatest drama in Pakistan is playing out not in a soap opera but on the political stage. On Tuesday 9 May the former prime minister Imran Khan was dragged from an Islamabad courthouse and arrested by Pakistan’s paramilitary and whisked away in a van.
The Pakistani government said he was been arrested after failing to attend a court summons in an alleged corruption case and should face trial. Yet the arrest is the culmination of several years of bitter hostility between Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, and the country’s true powerbrokers: the military and intelligence services, often referred to in Pakistan as “the establishment”. The establishment have held de facto power in Pakistan since its independence in 1947 and have endorsed politicians that do their bidding. Now, Khan is running in opposition to them.
“They have abducted Imran and it is a total collapse of law and order in Pakistan,” Shireen Mazari, the vice-president of the PTI, told me. “There is no democracy in this country anymore, that is clear. He is going to be tortured and I am extremely worried that his life now hangs in the balance.”
In the hours following Khan’s arrest, violent protests raged across the country – the fifth most populous in the world – with major outbreaks in cities including Karachi, Quetta and Lahore. The army opened fire on demonstrators in these cities, the PTI has claimed, and footage posted on social media by Pakistanis appeared to support their claims. There were at least 11 civilian casualties. Three out of four provinces have declared a state of emergency and banned public gatherings, while Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have been suspended by the government.
Khan’s many supporters say they will ignore the ban on public gatherings and have burned army buildings across the country. “Khan’s appeal is difficult to explain in a rational sense,” said Avinash Paliwal, associate professor in international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “There have been very few people in the subcontinent who have ever enjoyed this kind of popular support. This is very unique as a political phenomenon, he’s a once-in-an-era figure and that is why he is continuing to campaign – no one else could generate this support.”
Khan trod an unusual path into politics. Born in Lahore in 1952, he showed remarkable academic promise and attended Keble College at Oxford University, where he read politics, philosophy and economics. He was also a teenage cricket prodigy and played professionally after his graduation, captaining cricket-mad Pakistan to its only World Cup victory in 1992. He got a reputation as a playboy before marrying Jemima Goldsmith in 1995 and moving back to Pakistan. The couple had two sons, before divorcing nine years later.
There had long been speculation that Khan would enter politics and in 1996 he set up the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice). Despite his popularity in Pakistan, the PTI struggled to break the duopoly of the country’s two ruling families, the Sharifs and the Bhuttos, who, along with periods of military rule, have dominated the country’s politics. The PTI only won one seat – Khan’s – in the general elections in 1997 and 2002. No one rules for long without establishment backing. The military wields enough power to pressure the courts to disqualify politicians, exile them, or, in the instance of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a populist prime minister in the 1970s, have them executed.
But in 2018 Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, had fallen out with the country’s military. Regime change was again in the air. Khan, riding a wave of populist support, suddenly looked like the most likely candidate. His promises to wrest power away from the two ruling families – who had done little to empower millions of poor Pakistanis – and take a hardline stance against the country’s rival, India, proved popular with both the country’s disenfranchised citizens and the establishment. “Khan was the favourite son of the army in the lead up to the 2018 election and they took action to aid his rise to power,” explained Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, a think tank based in Washington DC.
Khan triumphed in the election, though allegations of vote rigging were widespread. The incumbent Nawaz Sharif was disqualified from politics by the judiciary, allegedly at the establishment’s request, and media outlets reported that they faced pressure to report on Khan positively in the run-up to voting.
After a second short-lived marriage to a Pakistani journalist, Khan had married Bushra Bibi, a Sufi Muslim mystic, in 2018. While some speculated that this was a cynical ploy to win over Pakistan’s conservative Islamic lobby, the former playboy said he had undergone a spiritual awakening.
No Pakistani prime minister has ever completed their term and it wasn’t long before Khan’s relations with the establishment soured spectacularly. First Khan clashed with the military on domestic policy decisions; then there was a public fallout in late 2021 when the army refused to choose an ally of Khan as head of the intelligence services and instead picked their own man. In April 2022 – less than four years into his five year term – Khan had been removed in a no-confidence vote and replaced with Shehbaz Sharif – brother of Nawaz Sharif – after the Sharifs allegedly paid some of Khan’s politicians to switch sides, at the army’s behest.
Almost immediately, Khan went on the attack, accusing the Sharifs and the establishment for corruption and alleging that his ousting was unconstitutional. He knew he still enjoyed significant public support and several by-election victories for his party confirmed this. “Khan’s political power increased significantly after his ousting,” explained Paliwal. “He has argued that the country’s military has compromised Pakistan’s national interests and he has seen this, first hand, from the inside. The more you corner him, the more popular he becomes. That is why no elections have been held since his ousting – it’s a given he would win.”
Khan has also been aided by the Sharifs’ failure to handle twin economic and security crises since their return to power. Decades of economic mismanagement caused inflation to soar to 36 per cent, the highest rate in over 50 years, in April this year. Negotiations over an International Monetary Fund bailout have stalled due to the Sharifs reluctance to impose unpopular austerity measures.
Over 70 million Pakistanis are going hungry, according to the Wilson Center, while at least 20 people died in March in stampedes at food distribution centres. Many hospitals say they have also run out of life-saving drugs for chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Those worst affected include millions of Pakistanis displaced following the devastating floods – the worst in the country’s history – last summer.
Meanwhile, the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), an Islamic militant group allied with the Afghan Taliban, have called off an indefinite ceasefire with the Pakistani government that had been agreed in June 2022 and had temporarily brought peace to the volatile northwest of the country. In January a suicide bombing by the TTP at a mosque near police and counterterrorism headquarters in Peshawar killed 84 people, mostly police officers. It was the deadliest attack in a decade.
In November Khan was shot four times in the legs while holding a rally in the western city of Wazirabad. From his hospital bed he blamed three people for the assassination attempt: Shehbaz Sharif, Rana Sanaullah, the country’s interior minister, and Major-General Faisal Naseer, a senior figure in the Pakistani intelligence services. Khan suffered nerve damage in his legs and while he made a public address after a month with the aid of crutches, it was four months until he was able to conduct regular rallies again.
So why would Khan want to continue in politics? His critics say he is power crazy; Khan says he is the only person who can pull Pakistan back from the brink. His rallies have attracted larger and larger crowds and there is set to be a general election this autumn. In a free and fair vote, it looks like Khan would certainly triumph.
His abrupt arrest appears to be a sign that the country’s establishment is losing patience. More than 120 court cases – a mixture of corruption and criminal cases – have been filed against Khan in an attempt to get him disqualified from politics, although the country’s judiciary had, until now, thrown these out. A prior attempt by the police to storm Khan’s residence in March and arrest him failed after PTI supporters blocked their entry.
“My sense is that this is the military taking matters into their own hands and overseeing the arrest of a public figure it has concluded that it doesn’t want to reconcile with,” Kugelman said. On 11 May Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that Khan had been detained illegally but the Pakistani government said he would be held for eight days, with the possibility of a further six. What happens now is unclear – neither the Pakistani government nor the establishment have reacted to the Supreme Court’s ruling.
The PTI says its lawyers have been refused access to Khan and that he is facing torture, a common practice in Pakistani prisons. When he was presented in court the day after his arrest, Khan said he feared being poisoned. The days ahead could be calamitous for Khan – not to mention the country. “The arrest was a very aggressive show of strength with hundreds of paramilitaries dragging Khan down the road,” said Paliwal. “It was a clear signal that ‘we will use force if needed’. I think there is a very real risk of the situation now escalating into very serious and very violent unrest.”