At the end of July, Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, resigned from his post following a supreme court ruling that disqualified him from office. He had been targeted over months of protests for alleged corruption, after reports about the Panama Papers in April 2016 revealed links between his family and several offshore companies. In November, the supreme court agreed to hold an inquiry into the allegations and, eight months later, Sharif became the second elected head of state—after Iceland’s prime minister—to fall from power as a result of the leaked documents.
Among the most triumphant reactions after Sharif’s fall came from his rival Imran Khan, who had spearheaded the aggressive protests against him, and was among those who petitioned the court for an inquiry. He declared that the ruling was “just the beginning,” and that the decision had “given hope to the people of Pakistan.”
Imran Khan is the founder and leader of the political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI. While he promotes himself as a crusader for justice, his own politics demands closer scrutiny. In his two decades in politics, Imran has sought to pit himself as a fighter against a rotting, corrupt government. He has led several dozen protests, many lasting weeks, all aimed at toppling democratically elected governments. But throughout, Imran has also maintained deference towards the Pakistan’s military and the Inter-Services Intelligence—broadly, the “establishment”—which has always sought to concentrate power within itself. Even as Imran’s popularity and prominence have grown, questions have arisen about whether he has enabled the establishment to use populism to its own ends.
In 2011, after his biggest rally till then, which took place in Lahore, political parties as well as analysts alleged that Imran was directly backed by the establishment. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML (N), accused the country’s intelligence agencies of supporting Imran with the aim of propping up a pawn that it could use to counter democratic governments. The party’s Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who in 2013 became the interior minister in Sharif’s government, said, “I have detailed documents of funding and ample evidence of the management the ISI extended in making the PTI’s rally successful.” He warned that if the ISI did not stop supporting the PTI, he would expose their ties in the media and in the courts.
But Chaudhry never followed through on this threat, and Imran escalated his criticism of the government. He was helped by the fact that politics in Pakistan has always been synonymous with corruption—in fact, with practices such as bribery and cronyism deeply entrenched in the system, it has often seemed less like politicians are corrupt than that corruption is a precondition for politics. Leaders of Imran’s own party have also faced allegations of corruption. When I met him in 2011, I asked him about this and got a dismissive, rhetorical answer: “I’m not going to be hijacked by a few people.”
Key to Imran’s strategy were fiery speeches and protests that were widely publicised and served to create an impression of chaos in the country. While corruption remained his main focus, he also took positions on other issues, nearly all of which aligned with those of the establishment. For instance, he campaigned for Pakistan to discontinue its relationship with the United States at a time when the establishment was inundated by US criticism of its alleged involvement with militant groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, more generally known as the Pakistani Taliban. He also repeatedly condemned the US drone attacks on militant camps in north-western Pakistan, which had been carried out since the early 2000s. Imran was also aligned with the establishment in his position on India, which he regularly criticised as untrustworthy.
While these may have been natural stances, Imran steadfastly avoided criticism of the establishment’s firm hold over the country’s politics and bureaucracy. When I met him at the end of 2011, a critical point in his rise, he denied that he would cede control to the army. “It’s the responsibility of the civilian government to take control of state matters, especially those which have to do with state’s sovereignty,” he told me. “I don’t think I will be so lousy that the army would have to make my decision.” He skirted around the fact that the establishment exercises covert but firm control over almost every arm of the government, and plays a role in political and bureaucratic appointments and promotions, as well as broad policies.
Since his rise, Imran has also criticised secular democratic voices in the country, referring to them generally as “those journalists” or “such people” and insisting that they are corrupt or “pro-Western.” In 2014, he surprised even some of his supporters when he lashed out at the renowned lawyer and activist Asma Jahangir.
His critics have also been alarmed by his apparent tolerance towards the Taliban, which exercises immense influence in north-western Pakistan. He has, for instance, been slow to speak out against the group’s murderous attacks across the country—and when he has issued condemnations, they have often been of attacks but not explicitly of the attackers. He has in the past even referred to the group’s members as “our estranged brothers” and recommended that they be permitted to open a political office. Many in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas still sarcastically call him “Taliban Khan” for his supposed tolerance of violent extremist groups.
Of course, Sharif is far from free of blemishes. He, too, built his career with military patronage, having been brought into power, in 1984, at a provincial level, by the military establishment under the government of Zia-ul-Haq, to counter Benazir Bhutto, who was then on the rise. And indeed, his and his family’s questionable dealings deserved to be investigated.
But his term since 2013 was the closest Pakistan had come to democratic order since 1947. In a history filled with coups and long military regimes, Sharif’s swearing-in marked the first time that power passed from one democratically elected government to another. In the years after, a sense of stability prevailed and some public faith in institutions such as the judiciary and media, as well as in democratic processes such as elections, began to return.
But these institutions and the people inhabiting them soon came under attack. The media was a common target, with journalists who spoke critically of the establishment facing particular aggression. Memes by internet trolls went viral, in which journalists were called traitors, and agents of foreign countries. Women journalists were especially vulnerable, and even faced physical attacks with objects such as bottles and stones: a particularly high number of such incidents was seen in PTI rallies. In the most extreme attack against a journalist, the influential television personality Hamid Mir, of the channel Geo, was shot in April 2014—he was hit by six bullets, but survived.
Even as this pressure increased, large sections of the media moved towards a stance that favoured the military and intelligence agencies. Around the news cycle, television channels such as Dunya TV and ARY gave prominence to anti-government voices, and politicians who fuelled anger against the ruling party. Imran was central to this attack and did the rounds of numerous television stations, railing against the government for its shortcomings.
Channels gained ratings with discussions that undermined respect for secularism, and courted promoters of right-wing politics, including Islamists and jingoistic nationalists, who portrayed the military as the saviours of the nation. The media became a fighting ring of politics, dominated by accusatory stories and exposes—many built on falsehoods—leaving the public with a sense that the country was headed for a breakdown.
Against this backdrop, the Panama Papers, which across the world were seen as empowering the public, served in Pakistan as potent weapons in the hands of those seeking to destabilise democracy.
Imran’s fight received a boost after his party petitioned the supreme court to investigate Sharif, and it gave its assent. The development helped Imran draw a swell of public support for his efforts. His interest and the military’s were neatly aligned: he wanted Sharif gone to increase his own chances of coming to power, and the military wanted him gone to ensure that the balance of power in the country remained skewed towards the establishment.
Sharif’s opponents were helped by his political shortcomings. In the face of the onslaught against him, he did not display the skills of statecraft, communication and strategy that could have enabled his transition into a true mass leader.
With Sharif’s fall, the Pakistani state has resumed its grotesque dance between democracy and dictatorship. Over the decades, any leader who appeared to challenge the military and intelligence establishment, directly or by acquiring too much power, has been dethroned in one way or another—Zulfikar Bhutto was hanged; Benazir Bhutto was assassinated after several years in exile, just as she returned to the country ahead of the 2008 election; and Sharif has been prematurely removed from power three times now. The fact that he lost power not on a finding pertaining to his family’s offshore companies, but on a technicality to do with a relatively small amount of undeclared and unclaimed income, has caused concern among many commentators in the national and international media.
Out of desperation and a need for stability, the Pakistani people have in the past supported dictators such as Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf. But they have also over time grown to hate them, particularly after Musharraf’s closing years, when he was roiled by allegations of corruption. This phase ruptured public trust in military dictatorships so deeply that the only way the military establishment could continue to maintain political influence in the country was by letting the political class grow mired in its own conflicts. Imran, with his desperation for power, proved to be the perfect figure to bring this about. All the establishment had to do was to appear to stay out of the picture and let Imran capitalise on the Sharif family’s notoriety, thus erasing the possibility for now of Pakistani democracy—however deeply flawed—maturing on its own.