Where does Pakistan find itself year after Imran Khan lost power?

The ex-PM’s message of resistance and victimhood not only has caught people’s imaginations but also revealed deep schisms in state institutions.

Pakistan's former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, along with his supporters walks as he leaves the district High Court in Lahore
A year out of power, however, has seen Imran Khan’s popularity skyrocket [File: Mohsin Raza/Reuters]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Minutes after the clock struck midnight on April 10 last year, Imran Khan became the first prime minister in Pakistan’s history to lose a confidence vote in parliament.

Khan had lost the support of his allies in the legislative body and in the powerful military. That fateful night in 2022 put in motion a chain of events that has left the country at a precipice as it simultaneously faces economic, political and security crises.

Going by Pakistan’s history, the removal of a prime minister was nothing unusual. In fact, in the South Asian country’s 75-year history, not a single premier has managed to complete a five-year term.

When Khan became prime minister in 2018, his critics claimed he was propped up by the military, which has directly ruled Pakistan for more than three decades and “constantly meddled” in the country’s politics, according to the former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Since April last year, though, Khan has repeatedly targeted the same military and Bajwa in particular as the key figures behind his removal from power. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Khan said a lesson he learned from his ouster was that he should not have “trusted the army chief”.

The past year has also shown that the former prime minister’s message of resistance and victimhood has not only caught the imagination of the people but has also revealed deep schisms in the state’s institutions.

The military once upon a time used to have an iron grip on the political narrative, but Islamabad-based political analyst Arifa Noor said she believes the army now is not “as strong as it used to be”.

“The class in Pakistan that used to legitimise military coups has now shifted its support to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf [Khan’s political party],” she said. “Traditionally, the people that were in favour of military intervention in politics are now questioning it because they shifted their support to Imran Khan, and that perhaps is one of the reasons the military seems to be weak.”

Kamran Bokhari, a senior director at New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC, said that while the Pakistani military still commands significant control over Pakistan’s politics, it is also under tremendous pressure.

“Khan is the only former political proxy that has been able to appropriate the military’s narrative and its discursive modus operandi to his advantage,” Bokhari told Al Jazeera.

In January last year, a few months before Khan’s removal, a survey by the Gallup research agency revealed that Khan’s popularity had dipped to its lowest level at 36 percent while 41 percent of the respondents expressed dissatisfaction with his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government.

A year out of power, however, has seen Khan’s popularity skyrocket. His party won 28 out of 37 by-elections held last year, and another Gallup survey in February showed his approval rating at 61 percent.

For many observers, the changing demographics of Pakistan, where close to 40 percent of the population is between the ages of 13 and 40, coupled with a rapidly urbanising society have played a major role in Khan’s increasing popularity.

Khan a ‘populist’

However, Lahore-based political analyst and former editor Muhammad Badar Alam calls the former prime minister a “populist”, saying he has offered only “simplistic solutions to complex problems”.

“His is a movement of socially and economically mobile urban classes, which see the ruling elite as being out of touch with their lives,” Alam told Al Jazeera. “Like all populists, Imran Khan has been successful in stoking the fears and hatred of this group of people. He has had good luck of being present at the right time to represent the ideals, aspirations and frustrations of this class very successfully.”

Noor said the young people entering the electorate are looking for a change.

“Young people want change, and they see that change in Imran Khan. He has made a lot of mistakes in the past one year, but it doesn’t matter. None of it seems to stick because the other side is what is making him popular,” she said, referring to the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

According to some economists, Sharif took office after Khan’s government had taken policy decisions that left “a minefield” for the new administration.

But the current government’s economic policies, exacerbated by last year’s catastrophic floods, have left Pakistan on the brink of a default.

Inflation has soared to more than 35 percent, the highest ever recorded, while Pakistan’s foreign reserves have shrunk to less than $5bn, enough to cover just a little more than five weeks of imports.

By June 2026, Pakistan also needs to repay $77.5bn in external debt, according to a recent report by the United States Institute of Peace. The country is also struggling to finalise a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to unlock $1.1bn in stalled funding.

Imran Khan and Shehbaz Sharif
A composite photo showing Imran Khan, right, and PM Shehbaz Sharif [File: Reuters]

Meanwhile, people are dying in stampedes while trying to collect food aid during the holy month of Ramadan.

The political crisis has also deepened. Since his removal, Khan has been demanding an early general election, which is now scheduled for October. There has also been an assassination attempt against him, which the 72-year-old leader blamed on his political opponents.

With a litany of problems engulfing the country – called a “polycrisis” by Mosharraf Zaidi of the Islamabad-based think tank Tabadlab – the question is: Was removing Khan last year a good decision?

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, another think tank, said it made little sense to remove a government that had already completed more than three years in power.

“It would have been fair to allow him to complete his term and give him the opportunity to implement his manifesto, which he had promised to his people,” Mehboob told Al Jazeera.

Zaidi said the mechanism for Khan’s removal was legal but he believes removing him “has not served the people of Pakistan well”.

“That said, the Pakistani people are neither a consideration for Khan nor for those who stand against him, whether in the coalition government that replaced him or in the military,” he said.

But will holding elections early, as the PTI demands, help establish the stability that the country of 220 million people needs?

“A broad agreement on broader issues between Imran Khan and the other parties would be very important at this stage and until that agreement is reached, I find it very unlikely that polls will provide any solution,” Mehboob said.

Alam said in a politically polarised society like Pakistan, holding elections could be a meaningful way to engage all stakeholders but it cannot address all the problems.

“Our state is broken, and our society is dysfunctional,” he said. “These massive structural problems cannot be overcome by a single election, though a free, fair and truly representative election can throw up a political leadership that can start working on addressing these problems.”

Zaidi said the “current chaos” in Pakistan is not due to last year’s events alone.

“However, an election – one that is free, fair and timely as far as being within the time period stipulated by the constitution – is an absolute prerequisite to the path out of Pakistan’s ‘polycrisis’,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera