Imran Khan: from sports hero to prophet of doom

JONATHAN MANTHORPE  
September 3, 2014 

The occupation of the heart of Pakistan’s capital by thousands of demonstrators demanding the resignation of the government is not so much a political crisis as a sad, public flameout by the protest leader, former cricket hero and international playboy Imran Khan.

Konferenz: Pakistan und der Westen - Imran Khan  Pakistan ist ein Kriegsgebiet. Es hat neben einer Vielzahl anderer Probleme, die dringend die Etablierung von Rechtsstaatlichkeit und demokratischen Strukturen erfordern, mit großen Bedrohungen von Militanten, Aufständischen und Terroristen zu kämpfen. Im Lichte der derzeitigen Krise diskutierten hochrangige Gäste aus Pakistan und mehrere deutsche Experten über Strukturen und Defizite der Rechtsstaatlichkeit wie auch die derzeitige Sachlage, parallele Rechtssysteme, die Beziehungen zwischen Politik und Judikative und die Rolle politischer Parteien und der Gesellschaft.   Die Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung veranstaltete am 26. Oktober 2009 eine Konferenz und Fachdiskussion unter dem Titel "Rule of Law: The Case of Pakistan". Eine Dokumentation finden Sie auf www.boell.de/weltweit/asien/asien-7872.html.   Foto: Stephan Röhl

Imran Khan at a conference on terrorism in Germany in 2009. Photo by Stephan Röhl via Flickr, Creative Commons

For over two weeks up to 15,000 followers of Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice or PTI) have occupied the country’s political hub, the “Red Zone,” in the capital, Islamabad, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

But the fiery exhortations to his followers from the man who in the 1970s and ‘80s was the darling of London gossip column columnists and the lion of international cricket when he led Pakistan to its only world championship in 1992, are increasingly disjoined and unfocussed. An offspring of Pakistan’s wealthy and highly educated elite, Khan has adopted the language of the marketplace in an apparent attempt to court the support of the masses.

And beyond the resignation of Sharif, it is not at all clear what Khan wants. This has led to a resurgence of the description that dogged him in his playboy days in London when he partied with friend Mike Jagger and the Rolling Stones, and was stalked by society beauties for his athleticism and exotic good looks, but not for the erudition of his conversation. “Im the Dim,” he was called.

Khan’s 1995 marriage to the blonde and beautiful Jewish heiress Jemima Goldsmith was a union made in tabloid heaven. But even though she converted to Islam, the woman who still calls herself Jemima Khan found the transition from London high life to the role of chatelaine of an aristocratic estate in rural Punjab to be a cultural bridge too far. They divorced in 2004 and she is back in England with their two sons, working as a journalist, movie producer, fashion icon and campaigner for refugees.

They remain friends, and Khan stays with Jemima’s mother when he is in London to see the children. But all the recent profiles of Khan portray a man bereft, rattling gloomily around his hollow rural mansion, and seeking solace in religion and politics.

Today, reports from Islamabad say that Khan’s supporters are starting to slip away from the sit-in as Nawaz shows no sign of resigning, the majority of parties in parliament have reaffirmed support for his government, and the military appears to be siding with the administration.

For years there have been allegations that Khan’s PTI was closely associated with Pakistan’s military, the country’s only fully-functioning institution which has imposed martial law four times since independence in 1947 to “ensure the security of the state.”

This charge resurfaced as a liability a few days ago when the president of Khan’s PTI, Javed Hashmi, said there was a secret alliance between the party and the military to remove the Nawaz government. Even though everyone knows there is little love lost between the military and Nawaz – it staged a coup against his first government in 1999 – spokesmen at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi were forced to explicitly deny support for Khan’s protesters and side with the government.

The rifts between Khan’s protest and the military grew more sharp at the weekend when soldiers expelled demonstrators from the Pakistan Television building, which they had occupied. In the melee, at least three protesters were killed and 400 people injured.

These incidents further eroded whatever public support Khan can still count on and added to the growing lack of faith among his PTI followers.

Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Official  photo by Z A Balti, public domain.

Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Official photo by Z A Balti, public domain.

The possibility of a military coup or imposition of martial law always hangs in the political air in Pakistan. If Khan’s protest finds new momentum and becomes violent, it remains possible that the military will stage a political intervention, but at the moment that is unlikely.

Khan turned to politics with the founding of PTI in 1996. His platform is to confront Pakistan’s all-embracing political corruption by the application of the moral principles of Islam. Khan has acknowledged his ideological debt to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, which has become a model throughout Islam for politicians wanting to blend democracy with Muslim religious observance.

Khan insists last years election was dominated by fraud when Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won 166 seats in the 342-seat parliament. This was just short of an outright majority, but he able to form a coalition government. Khan’s PTI won 35 seats, its best showing so far, but well short of what Khan had convinced himself it would win.

The election was notable as Pakistan’s first peaceful transfer of power following the successful completion of a five-year term by a democratically elected government. This may seem like a minor achievement, but in a country that has never managed to accomplish lift-off, that belly-flops on the runway every time a contrary wind blows, it is not to be sneered at.

Where Khan is undoubtedly right is his claim that last year’s election was not free and fair. No election in Pakistan ever has been and it’s going to be years if not decades before that breakthrough happens. But, as anyone who has followed a Pakistani election on the ground will know, it is hard to draw the line between what is corrupt and what is merely shambolic.

The verdict on the 2013 election gets confusing because of what various members of the supposedly independent Election Commission have said. For example, in June, the secretary of the commission, Afzal Khan (no relation), told Pakistan media that there was “historic rigging” in the election. However, this judgement was quickly discredited. Journalists dug up tapes of an interview the commission secretary gave soon after the May, 2013, vote when he said the ballot was “the most free and fair ever.” His change of attitude in the intervening months is linked, it is claimed, to his failure to get a promotion.

There is, though, detailed evidence of irregularities in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city with 20 million people, and 139 constituencies in all. In one constituency only 69 bags containing ballot papers were found to be genuine and 256 were fake.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com 

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