Islamabad, Pakistan – imran khan he is once again trying to bend the arc of Pakistani politics to his formidable will.
Recently ousted as prime minister, Khan has quickly returned to his political roots and is gathering his followers against what he calls a rigged system.
And his followers are responding.
At a rally in Karachi on Saturday, Khan was cheered by a sizable crowd as he once again delivered a alleged plot by the United States to remove him from office.
“So tell me, Pakistanis, if this was a conspiracy or not, please raise your hand and tell me,” Khan asked.
“Conspiracy!” the crowd roared back.
The exchange was a blow to Pakistan’s powerful military leadership.
On Thursday, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Babar Iftikhar made national headlines, rejecting Khan’s claim that the United States had teamed with allies inside Pakistan to remove Khan.
The military spokesman specifically refuted Khan’s use of the word “conspiracy,” prompting the former leader to exhort the crowd in Karachi.
The back-and-forth between Khan and the military leadership is part of a high-stakes political strategy by Khan to stay at the center of the national political discourse and force early elections on favorable terms.
For the cricketer-turned-politician, the stakes are significant, with the military leadership chafing at the nonchalant political criticism leveled at him, since his departure, in protests organized by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). and on social media.
“The army draws its strength from the people and any effort to drive a wedge between the army and the population will not be tolerated,” army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa told his officers in a reference to “hostile forces” not identified.
According to Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Bajwa also warned that “misinformation and propaganda threaten the integrity of the state” and called for “speculation and rumours” to be countered.
For years, the PTI reveled in being on “the same page” as the military leadership, a claim to civil-military harmony unlike previous civilian governments.
The PTI also routinely criticized its political opponentsin particular the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), for allegedly defaming military leaders.
Now, it is the PML-N that is accusing Khan and his PTI of attacking the military leadership.
On Monday, Marriyum Aurangzeb, who is likely to be the next information minister, accused the PTI of organizing a social media campaign to “abuse institutions, promote hate speech and sow chaos in the country.”
Khan’s latest political quest, this time to regain power, also collides with the reality of power being consolidated by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, whose government now controls parliament.
And on Saturday, amid fistfights in the Assembly in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, Khan’s PTI snatched power from him again.
Punjab’s new prime minister, Hamza Shahbaz, is the son of Sharif, the first such father-son duo in Pakistani history.
The formation of the federal cabinet it may mean further consolidation, allowing the new government to move away from Khan and focus on its own constituents.
So, with Khan’s next public rally in Lahore on April 21, supporters are bracing for a possible escalation in his rhetoric.
“It seems that the idea is to exert pressure, increase pressure,” Sher Ali Arbab, a PTI MP in Peshawar, said of Khan’s strategy.
“But if Khan gets more direct about the establishment and the role of the judiciary, it could become a really explosive situation.”
While the role of a crusading political outsider is not new to Khan, his public admonition by the military leadership is new, and the politician is walking a tightrope.
To keep the political pressure on the new government, Khan must keep his base charged and angry. But some of that anger is directed at military leaders, which risks further alienating a powerful electorate that might still hold the keys to political power in Pakistan.
Khan’s premiership fell apart after military leaders publicly distanced themselves from the PTI government and assumed a posture of supposed neutrality, allowing the opposition to dislodge Khan.
Until now, Khan has carefully avoided blaming military leaders directly for his overthrowfocusing instead on his narrative of an American plot with local enablers.
But some of Khan’s angry supporters have been less reticent.
Videos and messages on social media have allegedly shown PTI supporters alleging military interference and manipulation against Khan.
“It’s a very dangerous game,” Shuja Nawaz, author of The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighborhood, told Al Jazeera.
Nawaz said the military “will protect itself as a corporate entity” from political attacks that erode its leadership’s standing with the public.
But in the topsy-turvy, upside-down world of Pakistani politics, where an ally becomes an enemy and enemies become allies, Khan appears to have grown his support among a large cohort of influential allies — retired and serving military personnel and their networks. extended family members throughout Pakistan.
wave of sympathy
Support for Khan among military cadres is not new. His rise to political power in 2018 was hugely popular in the military, and for years a group of retired military officers vigorously defended Khan in the media and denounced political opponents of him.
But retired military personnel and their families rarely make themselves heard in public as political power changes hands in Pakistan and strict rules guide the public conduct of serving personnel.
However, with the removal of Khan, it seems that a dam has burst.
“It is amazing, certainly its scope,” Ayaz Amir, a retired military officer and now a political analyst, told Al Jazeera. “Why have you done this and for what purpose? Not only retirees, but also serving staff.”
Since Khan’s departure, a torrent of comments and criticism has been unleashed on social media and private messaging groups, ranging from dirges to pro-Khan tirades by retired military officers and apolitical military housewives and adults. youths.
“These are the pillars of patriotism, the officer corps concentrated in Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi and their families. Not everyone always supported Khan, but when they look at the alternative [the new government]they don’t see any options,” Amir said.
Political controversies and internal divisions are not new to the Pakistani military.
In 2008, General Pervez Musharraf, the former military chief, was forced out of office due to falling popularity and a rivalry with General Ashfaq Kayani, who succeeded him as army chief.
But an affinity for Khan runs deep in military cadre, fueled in part by a distaste for his political opponents who are once again in charge.
Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, suggested that the rise of military opinion in favor of Khan is long in the making.
“The military has created this moment for itself with its anti-corruption narrative since 1985. Traditional politics has been portrayed as corrupt and unrepresentative. Everything has come to a head now.
“You created a messiah in Imran Khan. Why are you surprised that people want to follow him even now? Siddiqa asked.
The vast amount of support for Khan among military personnel (serving and retired, young and old, junior and senior, and their families) is a sensitive issue in Pakistan because it has the potential to throw the weight of general military opinion behind it. Khan and against the military leadership.
The Pakistani media has only elliptically referred to the incipient swell, and Khan has limited himself to expressing deep admiration for the fighting spirit and patriotism of the military.
But the changes are already evident.
On Thursday, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Iftikhar announced that Bajwa will retire in November, forgoing the possibility of a second extension in service for which he is eligible.
Since Khan’s departure, Bajwa has been criticized on social media and in private messaging groups, something unthinkable a few weeks ago.
It’s a surprising change for a warlord who was talked about in sycophantic terms until recently.
Aurangzeb, the likely next information minister, has blamed PTI leaders for the social media attacks on Bajwa, while the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has carried out a series of raids and arrests across Pakistan, even from PTI social media activists.
The PTI has denied the accusations of a campaign against the military leadership.
Meanwhile, as Khan pushes forward with his campaign to topple a government that toppled him, he seems to have an advantage his opponents didn’t: a relative lack of enthusiasm and support for the new government.
Tormented by internal contradictions, confronted by grim economic challenges and facing general elections due to be held at the end of 2023, the new coalition government led by the PML-N has struggled to articulate a government message and lacks the political capital that goes with it. . win a general election.
By contrast, Khan has the relentless energy of a political maverick who has spent decades in the opposition and is now armed with an emotional story of an unjust conspiracy to steal his government.
So while Khan is once again on the outside looking in, it may not be for long. Or maybe he will never get a second term: Pakistan’s politics remain as confusing as ever.
“There is a gap between the top 150 officers and the rest of the army,” said author Nawaz. “The younger officers see Imran Khan as better than the political alternatives, but the senior group has seen Imran’s Trumpian tendencies.”