ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan rode a wave of discontent to finally break through as a serious player in Pakistani politics at last year’s election. Now he is aiming even higher, leading thousands on a march to the capital in a bid to unseat the prime minister.
But in taking his campaign to force out Nawaz Sharif on to the streets of Islamabad, Khan may have overplayed his hand. This weekend his crowd of followers was already thinning out, and without overt support from the military his protests are unlikely to be a game-changer.
Thousands showed up for his rally on Saturday, but some supporters grumbled they had slept out in the rain while Khan relaxed in his nearby mansion. “The path he’s chosen is one of protest,” said Samina Ahmed, South Asia director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank. “Now the question is: does he have a strategy beyond the protest?”
Even if the protest movement fizzles, however, Sharif will have been left weakened and less likely to challenge the country’s powerful military on security and foreign policy, which Pakistan’s generals have long considered to be their domain.
Khan accuses Nawaz Sharif of rigging last year’s election, which marked the first democratic transition in Pakistan’s turbulent history, and last week vowed to occupy Islamabad until the prime minister resigns.
The government has warned that his protest, and another led by cleric Tahirul Qadri, could destabilise the nuclear-armed nation of 180 million, which has seen a succession of military coups and is struggling to stifle a Taliban insurgency.
It fears Khan is trying to force a confrontation so the army will once again intervene, or that the military is manipulating Khan from behind the scenes.
There is no doubt that the military brass dislike Sharif, who stormed back to power for a third time last year after his party won a clear majority of parliament’s seats.
Sharif has put former military head Pervez Musharraf, who abruptly ended his last stint as prime minister in a 1999 coup, on trial for treason.
He has also dithered over a military offensive to quash the Taliban, sided with a media group that accused the military of shooting one of its journalists and sought reconciliation with arch-foe India, the perceived threat that the army uses to justify its prominent position. A political analyst said it was unlikely Khan was encouraged by the army to challenge Sharif, and much more likely that Khan had decided to pounce because the prime minister’s sparring with the generals had left him vulnerable.
“If the relationship with the military had not gone out of kilter, then Imran would not have seized this opportunity,” said the analyst, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. “He saw Sharif was on shaky ground.”
In recent months, Sharif’s resistance to the military has softened. An anti-Taliban offensive began in June and the treason trial against Musharraf has quietly ground to a halt.
The army has not commented publicly on the protests, but insiders say it has no appetite for forcing Sharif out - which would involve a showdown with Pakistan’s increasingly powerful judiciary.
That makes it all the more likely that Khan’s protest will fizzle out unless he forces a confrontation. “When I asked him, ‘what’s your exit strategy?’, he said: ‘I play to win,’” said the analyst. “It’s a sportsman’s calculus.”
For decades, the charismatic 61-year-old Khan was lauded for his sporting prowess and his charitable work. An Oxford graduate, Khan captained his country to its only cricket World Cup victory in 1992. As a philanthropist, he built a cancer hospital and aided victims of a flood disaster in 2010.
Although he first dabbled in politics in the mid-1990s, until last year his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party had only ever won a single parliamentary seat - his own.
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