No, Imran Khan Isn’t an Anti-Imperialist Hero
After being defeated in a no-confidence vote, Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan is now claiming he has been replaced by an “imported government.” But for all the bombastic nationalism, Khan’s rule was marked by deference to the IMF and handouts to the rich.
On April 9, tensions were running high in Pakistan’s National Assembly as legislators gathered to vote on the future of Imran Khan’s government. Khan’s supporters made fiery speeches, accusing their opponents of being part of US-sponsored regime change. The opposition benches retorted by highlighting the Khan government’s authoritarianism and economic mismanagement, leading to heated exchanges between the two sides. The resolution was taken to vote just before midnight, with a majority of legislators voting to oust Khan as prime minister.
The removal of Pakistan’s former leader triggered social media responses among figures on the international Left about the momentous changes taking place in the country. Khan’s own rhetoric played into this; after all, he has announced a series of protests against what he calls an “imported government,” thus positioning himself as an anti-imperialist leader within Pakistan.
But to understand what’s happened in recent weeks, we also need to know about the internal dynamics of Pakistani politics. Without understanding the class forces that explain the nature of Khan’s rule, categories such as anti-imperialism can be transformed into merely sentimental rhetoric, exploited by demagogues who merely seek to boost their own power.
Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan formed his Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI) in 1996 as a “third option” against the two-party system dominated by the Bhutto (Pakistan People’s Party) and Sharif (Pakistan Muslim League) families. Widespread allegations of corruption, nepotism, and poor governance created a popular appetite for change.
In his party’s first years, Khan was unable to initially translate his charisma as a sportsman into electoral gains. He lent support to General Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship after Nawaz Sharif’s government was overthrown in 1999. In 2002, Khan broke with Musharraf and gave his support to Maulana Fazlur Rahman, a pro-Taliban cleric and Khan’s major opponent today, in his failed bid to become the country’s prime minister.
PTI remained on the peripheries of Pakistan’s mainstream politics for the next decade before it began attracting bigger crowds in 2011, culminating in a mammoth rally in Lahore in October 2011. Khan had raised the pulse of upwardly mobile middle-class youth frustrated with the lack of political representation in mainstream parties who opposed the increasing costs of America’s wars in the region. While this moment brought Khan into the political limelight, he had a major impediment to overcome: his support base was mostly urban and middle-class people with the capacity to make noise on social media, but he did not have the mass support of the urban and rural poor who were still tied to more orthodox networks of clientelism offered by mainstream politicians.
At this point, Khan had a choice to make. Either he could organize the party across the country to build a grassroots organization that could challenge the vested interests in politics, or he could rely on “electables”: rich individuals who have historically monopolized political power in their constituencies irrespective of party affiliation. In an abrupt turnaround, Khan began welcoming powerful political actors from opposing parties, many of whom he had accused of corruption in the past. The organization that mediated the relationship between electables and the PTI was the country’s powerful intelligence agency, the ISI. The security apparatus was unhappy with the civilian governments partly due to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution passed by Pakistan’s Parliament in 2010, which devolved more power to different provinces in the country.
The intelligence agencies acted as the invisible bureaucracy to ensure that the PTI continued to attract significant political players from other parties, a phenomenon that led critics to claim that PTI had turned into a “laundry machine” to wash away the sins of corrupt politicians who were willing to switch sides. Other than ensuring support from traditional politicians, the security apparatus also created hostile conditions for Khan’s political opponents in 2018, including media censorship and the infamous midnight raids to harass activists. In July 2018, PTI won the general elections and built a coalition with pro-military parties, giving Khan a thin parliamentary majority resting on the whims of opportunists both within and outside his party.
PTI came to be widely known as a “hybrid regime,” a civilian government that had the full backing of the chief of army staff, General Qamar Bajwa, and the ISI chief, General Faiz Hameed. Three elements formed the core of Khan’s governance model: neoliberalism, social conservatism, and authoritarianism.
In his populist rage, Khan had claimed that he would prefer committing “suicide” over going to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) “with the begging bowl.” Within months of coming to power, however, his government began negotiating a deal with IMF representatives that eventually saw him replace his finance minister with Hafeez Sheikh, a former World Bank employee.
As a result of an agreement signed with the IMF in 2019, the PTI government embarked upon a tough austerity program that saw budget cuts to education and development spending, high inflation rates touching 12 percent, and “Central Bank autonomy” with Reza Baqir, a former employee of the IMF, as the bank’s new governor. At the same time, in order to spur growth, his government announced “Amnesty Schemes” for the richest Pakistanis. They were encouraged to park their illegal wealth in speculative housing schemes, demonstrating the belief in “trickle down” economics among his core economic team.
During the economic crisis of 2018–20, workers’ real wages, which had witnessed a growth rate of 2 to 4 percent between 2008 and 2014, stagnated to below 1 percent, while mean incomes fell by 34 percent during the pandemic amidst record corporate profits. A cut in development spending has also had dire consequences for public health. A recent report by Professor Nousheen Zaidi showed the presence of extremely hazardous concentrations of lead in drinking water in working-class areas of Lahore, with 78 percent of children tested found to be anemic.
The social decomposition triggered a series of protests by different working-class groups, including trade unions and farmers groups. The political authoritarianism of the hybrid regime was on full display when dealing with protesters. For example, teachers faced unprecedented humiliation when they were tear-gassed in Islamabad in December 2020 for demanding wage increases. Farmers protesting against soaring prices of agricultural inputs were also tear-gassed in Lahore in November 2020, leading to the death of a farmer. In December 2019, students protesting for the right to unionize and a reduction of university fees were charged with sedition and arrested; members of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a civil rights movement of people affected by the “war on terror,” were imprisoned; and the hideous policy of enforced disappearances continued to ravage the political life of peripheries such as Balochistan.
Finally, Khan’s social conservatism fueled misogyny and xenophobia across the country. During a number of high- profile rape cases, Khan stated how “vulgarity” was leading to higher cases of sexual violence as only “robots” would not be turned on by provocative clothing — thus shifting the blame onto victims. Similarly, Khan referred to victims of the Hazara Shia minority, who refused to bury victims of a terrorist attack unless the prime minister visited them, “blackmailers” for insisting on meeting him. Previously, Khan used the blasphemy issue to attack his political opponents in Parliament, showing his propensity to couch his conservatism in the language of religion and morality.
As a result, Pakistan experienced a government that practiced speculative capitalism on steroids while deploying fantasies of a culturally homogenous past to fuel nationalism and religious sentiment.
Despite his governance failures, Khan remained confident of completing his tenure given the backing of the military. However, this alliance became strained in October 2021 as Khan tried to retain General Faiz as ISI chief while refusing to sign General Bajwa’s extension as army chief against the wishes of the military high command. The hybrid regime became untenable as the majority of generals were upset that a civilian leader was trying to interfere in military matters. Reports began circulating that Bajwa and other senior military officials signaled to the opposition that they were ready to withdraw support from the government. The opposition, with a long history of close ties to the military, was ready to move in.
Opposition members submitted a vote of no confidence in Parliament, claiming that the prime minister no longer had the support of the majority of parliamentarians. The key elements that the opposition were counting on were coalition partners and members of Khan’s team who had switched sides since 2012 under pressure from the intelligence apparatus. It was widely believed that these “electables” were now lured back into the opposition camp with promises of financial reward. Eventually, the resolution was submitted on March 8 by the National Assembly but voting was deferred until April 3. Initially, Khan was confident that he would defeat the vote of no confidence, but as his coalition partners began joining the opposition ranks, Khan declared that he was being removed due to a foreign conspiracy.
The only proof of the conspiracy Khan has presented (although not shared in public) so far is a diplomatic cable from his own ambassador in the United States that quotes an American diplomat suggesting that Pakistan-US relations cannot improve under the Khan government, especially after his recent visit to Russia. This was not unprecedented as relations between the two countries have been tense for over a decade. The raid to kill Osama Bin Laden, the killing of twenty-eight Pakistani soldiers by NATO at Salala in 2011 (which prompted Pakistan to suspend NATO’s supply routes facilitating the war in Afghanistan), and the initiation of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor led to serious differences between the two states. Yet, this did not change Pakistan’s basic economic and geostrategic dependence on US imperialism, with the IMF taking a leading role in economic restructuring both prior to and during Khan’s tenure.
On April 3, 2022, Khan had his Trumpian moment as he triggered a constitutional crisis by ordering the deputy speaker of the National Assembly to reject voting on the no-confidence motion, dissolved the assemblies, and called for new elections. The blatantly unconstitutional move was reversed by the Supreme Court with a unanimous verdict and a vote was fixed for Saturday April 9. Khan’s supporters made a clumsy attempt to delay the vote further with reports circulating that he planned to dismiss General Bajwa and replace him with General Faiz, his primary ally within the armed forces. The move failed: the vote against Khan passed and he was forced to leave office. Since then, Khan’s allies have deserted him while his original middle-class support has again coalesced around him with impressive demonstrations of thousands of people in the country’s main urban centers.
The current protests led by Khan are devoid of any new ideas, instead relying on the usual authoritarian rhetoric of accusing political opponents of being traitors who must be completely removed from the body politic.
Much like many countries in the Global South, Pakistan has been a victim of imperialist aggression and US-backed military regimes. Anti-imperialism must remain at the core of progressive politics to reimagine a strong global left. Yet, today we increasingly witness a rhetoric of imperialism completely divorced from anti-capitalism and without even a mention of the working class/peasantry, the social forces that were at the forefront of anti-imperialist struggles in the twentieth century. The result is that populists who accept neoliberalism as their economic principle equate anti-imperialism with authoritarian nationalism, disregard for civil liberties, controlling women’s bodies, and repressing minorities. In other words, we are left with a neoliberalism without civil liberties, and anti-imperialism without a vision of emancipation.
Leaders such as Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Narendra Modi have used anti-Western sentiment to build authoritarian politics at home while incorporating themselves within the global capitalist order in a subordinate position to Western imperialism. Without a concrete agenda for challenging neoliberalism and for redistribution of wealth, talk of foreign conspiracies can lead to delusional thinking manufactured by socially regressive forces in order to avoid discussions on internal contradictions. Unfortunately, the forces of the status quo in Pakistan that have replaced Khan represent a moribund social structure that continues to exploit the public, suspending politics between uninspiring democrats and an insurgent authoritarianism.
The task today is to locate an independent politics that stems from the needs of the working classes and links the struggles against authoritarianism with a social revolution against the structures of neo-feudalism and capitalism. In Pakistan, unity among trade unions, farmers associations, student activists, women, minorities, and professionals can build a strong coalition that no longer relies on support from “electables” to win elections and can pose a durable challenge to imperialism.
A prerequisite for this politics is to shun the temptation for cultural nationalism or shortcuts via the military that allows demagogues to masquerade as anti-imperialists. Such a shallow anti-imperialism may appeal to some in the Global North interested in simple geostrategic binaries, but the costs of such figures’ rule will be borne by the most vulnerable sections of society domestically. Courage and patience remain the greatest virtues if we are to reorient ourselves toward a politics of emancipation.