After Imran Khan’s Ouster, Pakistan Is Going Through an Unprecedented Political Crisis

Pakistan’s ousted leader, Imran Khan, is continuing his bid to regain power after surviving an assassination attempt last week. With the traditional parties discredited and divisions opening up in the military, the country is entering uncharted waters.

Former prime minister Imran Khan addresses supporters during an anti-government march demanding early elections in Gujranwala, Pakistan, November 1, 2022. (ARIF ALI / AFP via Getty Images)

On November 3, while he was leading a march to Pakistan’s capital demanding fresh elections, the country’s ousted prime minister, Imran Khan, was the target of an assassination attempt. Thankfully, given Pakistan’s long history of former government leaders meeting violent deaths, Khan survived with minor injuries, although one person was killed.

In subsequent speeches, Khan has directly accused the Pakistani military establishment of trying to get rid of him. His furious supporters have taken to the streets, often outside major military installations, to demand accountability. This is an outpouring of anti-military sentiment without precedent in central Pakistan since the end of direct rule by the officer corps in 2007–8.

To understand where things now stand with Imran Khan’s project in Pakistan, we need to establish some historical and theoretical coordinates that can help make sense of the country’s recent political turbulence. Beneath the surface of events is a profound structural crisis that neither Khan nor his opponents will be able to address.

A Populist Project

In many ways, the Imran Khan phenomenon in the years after 2007 matched the classic definition of a populist project. There was a crisis within the ruling bloc, whose ideological, economic, and political capacities were running dry, and a popular upsurge outside it, centered on the middle classes that had developed in the wake of economic liberalization but overlapping with more impoverished social groups as well.

The nature of such discontent, which was both wide and shallow, shaped the peculiar path of Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) movement to state power. The PTI developed a program based on religious nationalism and a nebulous “Islamic welfare state,” combined with a single-minded emphasis on the struggle against “corruption” and leakage of state resources.

This anti-corruption rhetoric had strong echoes of “good governance” prescriptions from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Khan’s media-driven celebrity status and charisma was the movement’s focal point, but it lacked deep organizational and sociological roots.

Khan’s party, with the untainted reputation and outsider charms of its leader, was well placed to take advantage as the traditional political class floundered after the return of civilian rule. Representatives of big capital and Pakistan’s landed elites flooded into the PTI, and the country’s military also offered its support.

An uneasy social coalition thus came together behind Khan and lifted him into power in 2018. Pakistan’s middle classes and its surging youth population looked hopefully to Khan, yet its long-established and decadent guardians of order from the army and other powerful institutions also rallied to his side. Khan’s movement absorbed this popular discontent, neutralizing its potentially democratic elements.

It would have been extremely difficult for an alternative political force to channel this wave of middle-class discontent into a progressive project. A patriarchal-militarist ideological common sense has become deeply embedded in Pakistani society since the historic defeat of insurgent movements after the popular struggles of the 1960s and ’70s.

Khan’s larger-than-life, narcissistic persona was therefore much more a symptom of this prevailing stasis and degeneration than it was a cause of it. In a long-term perspective, we may see the rise of Khan’s movement as the last attempt by the established order in Pakistan to preserve itself and absorb social discontent through a charismatic leader.

A Military-Centered Cabal

In office, Khan was unable to forge the coherent organizational base he would have needed to carry out deep structural reforms to Pakistan’s political and economic systems. He increasingly came to rely on the military, the best-organized element in the country’s ruling bloc, to compensate for this lack of coherence.

A cabal of military men — both active and retired — and their civilian hangers-on took up key positions of one kind or another. They acted as strongmen for Khan’s anemic party organization and as whips to keep his restive parliamentary allies in order. They received appointments to run private and public institutions, including the oversight body of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), in which Pakistan’s perennially dependent ruling classes have invested great hope. They served as brokers for real estate chicanery and IMF-mandated austerity, with devastating implications for the Pakistani masses.

To top it all, the army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, received a three-year extension to his term in the winter of 2019–2020. This was a rare moment of agreement between Khan and his opponents, with all sides united in groveling deference to the generals — some already benefiting from their sponsorship and others waited hopefully in line for their turn.

Khan’s movement compensated for its lack of social vitality with geopolitical posturing abroad and nativist bluster on the home front that recalled Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule in Turkey. Khan’s international stances against Islamophobia in the West and the imperialist domination of Muslim populations struck a popular chord, but ultimately served to distract his supporters rather than to organize them for a challenge to the dominant power structure in Pakistan.

Most dangerously, Khan reinforced reactionary, patriarchal attitudes by blaming violence against women, including high-profile cases of murder and rape, on everything from “the West” to Bollywood movies and women’s own sartorial choices. Under his rule, wanton abuses by the military in Pakistan’s peripheral regions continued unabated, as did the muzzling and intimidation of dissident activists and media figures, from moguls to ordinary reporters. As had been the case under previous governments, stealth privatization of public services continued to advance.

Sooner or later, however, the alliance between Khan and the military was bound to unravel. No civilian prime minister in Pakistan to date has been able to survive in power after supping from the poisoned chalice of military-civilian “partnership.” The COVID-19 pandemic provided the Pakistani government with some temporary fiscal space, with debt and interest payments postponed. But things came to a head toward the end of 2021.

End of the Alliance

The IMF was ramping up pressure to carry out austerity programs, there were shrinking returns from the CPEC, and US largesse began drying up after the Taliban completed its sudden takeover of Kabul. The opposition parties, which found themselves excluded from the power structure, grew increasingly restive, and factional conflict continued within Khan’s party, especially in the dominant Punjab province, where more than half the country’s population lives.

In late 2021, a row developed between Khan and army chief General Bajwa, who had up to this point been the PTI leader’s chief benefactor and ally. Bajwa attempted to transfer the intelligence chief, Lt General Faiz Hameed, who was the Khan government’s de facto whip and organizational muscle man. Khan dithered and resisted, intimating that he might be planning to appoint Hameed as the next army chief so as to secure another term in power.

However, Bajwa had made up his mind. The opposition sensed an opening as relations soured between the two men, and Khan’s political allies now jumped ship. A vote of no confidence in Pakistan’s parliament forced him out of office. Khan claimed that he was the victim of a US-sponsored regime-change conspiracy on the basis of an unpleasant meeting that Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington had held with a State Department official.

The post-Khan administration brought together political has-beens with their progenies and protégés under the banner of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). Fearing Khan’s substantial reserves of popularity, they did not call for fresh elections to get over the taint of the highly manipulated 2018 ones. Instead, they took the reins of power so they could enjoy the perks of office, cuddle up to General Bajwa, and have some say in the appointment of the next army chief.

The PDM government has also implemented austerity policies with the same ruthlessness as its predecessor. Cuts to Pakistan’s already threadbare fuel and electricity subsidies have compounded the impact of soaring inflation, which has been fueled by global trends as well as the depreciation of the Pakistani rupee in the name of market adjustment.

Nothing to Lose

Khan’s most recent resurgence is thus not a simple repetition of his rise after 2007. He has gone on the campaign trail demanding immediate elections with the single-minded vigor of a man with nothing to lose. The ousted premier has turned on his own previous benefactors from the Pakistani military while keeping open the possibility of returning to their favor through backdoor negotiations.

However, it is now Khan’s supporters who are being hounded and repressed. Their sense of betrayal is palpable as they rail against General Bajwa and his allies, imploring “patriotic” generals to do their duty — in other words, to bring Khan back to power.

A divide is also evident within the officer corps and among ex-servicemen, with many denouncing General Bajwa’s withdrawal of support from the PTI government. All is not well in Pakistan’s military-industrial complex, whose ever-expanding assortment of serving and retired officers, together with their dependents and wider networks of contractors, represent a substantial social force.

The PTI has won a series of by-elections for national and provincial assembly seats with big majorities. Khan himself has been the candidate for most of these seats, rather than any of the PTI’s second- or third-tier leaders. Even though he has not been able to draw the crowds he was hoping for with his “long march” to Islamabad, these electoral successes show that Khan’s support base has remained intact since he was ousted, and has even expanded when compared to his position in 2018.

There is much speculation that the real objective of Khan’s long march to Islamabad is to secure the ascension of his favored candidate to the position of army chief when Bajwa is supposed to retire at the end of November. Last week’s assassination attempt may have been a warning to Khan from the military establishment that he should tone down his rhetoric and know his place in the ruling order.

After his arrest, the alleged gunman claimed to have acted out of religious fervor, accusing Khan and his supporters of impiety. The Punjab police have stated that the suspect is a drug addict and questioned the sincerity of his statements. In a context of mass impoverishment and lumpenization, millenarian fantasies can find fertile ground, and the unscrupulous spooks manning Pakistan’s state apparatus have a history of exploiting these fantasies to their own ends.

The coming weeks will be a dangerous moment for Pakistan, with a jilted populist leader who has a social constituency behind him, unmoored from its traditional loyalty to the military, while the army appears divided and will remain so — at least until the appointment of its next chief is resolved, one way or another.

Structural Crisis

Khan remains the most popular politician in the country, largely because of the venality of his opponents. Pakistan’s traditional parties constantly recycle the same old faces and names — sons, daughters, nephews — and have turned a blind eye to the army’s abuses during their own stints in power. Each successive government after the 2008 return to civilian rule has found itself perched on a narrower basis than the last, while the country’s political elites preferred to shore up military power instead of rooting themselves in an effective and alternative popular constituency.

This incapacity of traditional political elites to develop a popular social base is rooted in a long-term structural crisis — one that has also conditioned the seemingly constant oscillation of the pendulum between civilian and military rule. For the last half century at least, Pakistan’s ruling bloc has lacked a coherent economic project that can establish a sustainable basis for accumulation and consensus at the top of Pakistani society while also offering material concessions of some kind to the masses below.

The US-sponsored, highly skewed model of import substitution industrialization had exhausted itself by the mid-1960s, and there has been nothing to take its place since then. Indeed, a sustainable project of a hegemonic kind would require the ability to make short-term sacrifices for the sake of long-term gain — something that postcolonial ruling elites, like those of Pakistan, have proved incapable of doing.

In the absence of productive investment and sustainable accumulation, Pakistan’s ruling classes have relied on the export of workers on a vast scale to countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. There are currently more than nine million Pakistanis working abroad and sending home remittances that support their families and help reduce the size of Pakistan’s current account deficit. Between January and August of this year, remittances amounted to over $20 billion — by comparison, the Pakistani state budget for 2022–23 is $47 billion.

They have also relied upon a clientelist relationship with the US and other states, such as Saudi Arabia. It is this historical role as the regional gendarme of US imperialism that has turned the Pakistani military into the national hegemon that it is today. Imperial largesse and mediation has ensured the ultimate coherence of the ruling bloc: indeed, officials from Washington or Riyadh have often brokered agreements between warring factions of the Pakistani elite.

Today, however, the United States has abandoned its position in neighboring Afghanistan to concentrate on geopolitical confrontation in Eastern Europe and East Asia, while China is increasingly wary about CPEC investment in Pakistan. The lack of imperial patronage has left Pakistan’s rulers standing naked.

Men of Destiny

As Antonio Gramsci reminds us, a crisis can sometimes last for decades, revealing incurable structural contradictions. The current political turbulence in Pakistan arises from a deep-rooted and long-standing structural crisis of this nature. Only a political force with social depth and programmatic coherence can permanently resolve this crisis by fundamentally transforming the socioeconomic order.

In the absence of such a force, the constant jockeying for position between different factions of the country’s ruling bloc will continue, occasionally resulting in deadlock. The United States is not playing the same role as imperial sponsor or mediator that it did in similar crises of the past, and Pakistan’s relationship with China will not offer a substitute for its leaders.

We thus appear to be hurtling toward the kind of catastrophic equilibrium that Gramsci once warned about, in which large sections of the masses and key pillars of the hegemonic order become detached from their traditional vehicles. Khan, who was the latest (and perhaps last) popular figure working in coordination with the ruling bloc, now seems intractably opposed to it.

With political maneuvers no longer capable of papering over the structural fault lines, we are entering a context where, as Gramsci put it, the field becomes “open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic ‘men of destiny.’” Now may be the time of monsters.