The Generals and their Captain

What Imran Khan’s ascent did to Pakistan

Pakistani labourers set up a stage for a political rally for cricket-captain-turned-politician, Imran Khan, in Karachi, on 23 December 2011.  ASIF HASSAN / AFP / Getty Images
01 May, 2023

BY ALL STANDARDS, it was a tumultuous day in Pakistan’s parliament. Less than a month earlier, in July 2018, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, led by cricket-captain-turned-politician Imran Khan, had won a majority in the National Assembly elections. On 17 August, Khan rose to make his inaugural speech before the house as its newly elected prime minister. 

The galleries in the assembly were packed with PTI party workers and Khan’s supporters. His party leadership pressed in tightly around him, while the opposition erupted in some of the noisiest protests and chanting the parliament had seen in years. The leading opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), founded by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and led by his brother Shehbaz, was crowding the space in front of the treasury benches. Some wore black armbands in protest. They were shouting so loudly that Khan’s words were nearly drowned out. 

The PTI and its coalition partners had secured one of the slimmest majorities in Pakistani history—a mere four seats past the 172 required—while Khan made the widest of claims in his inaugural address. “I want to start by thanking Allah,” Khan began, straining to be heard above the melee, “for having given me the opportunity to bring that transformation in Pakistan, for which this nation has been waiting 70 years.” His coterie burst into applause.

“First thing we will do, we will have strict accountability for those who robbed this country and left it indebted,” he continued. “Today, I promise before God that I will not let even one of them go.” He turned to look in the direction of the opposition benches. Waving his finger for emphasis, Khan said that there would be “no negotiations, no talks and no settlement” with “any of the thieves.”