By: DECLAN WALSH
Only last year, Imran Khan was casting himself as the saviour of Pakistani politics: a playboy cricketer turned opposition leader who enjoyed respect and sex appeal, filling stadiums with adoring young Pakistanis drawn to his strident attacks on corruption, US drone strikes and old-school politics. When Khan promised that he would become prime minister, many believed him.
Now, leading a protest movement that has been messy, inchoate and inconclusive, the 61-year-old is seen as having disastrously overreached.
Khan delivers speeches every day from atop a shipping container, while his supporters sleep on the streets of a paralysed Islamabad. But because he lacks the clout to break the political deadlock, he has turned to inflammatory tactics. He has called for a tax boycott, threatened to have his supporters storm the prime minister’s house, and pulled his party’s lawmakers from Parliament. In interviews, he has compared himself to Gandhi and to Tariq ibn Ziyad, an eighth-century Islamic general. In speeches, he has threatened his enemies and taunted Sharif, at one point challenging him to a fistfight.
The rest of the political opposition and much of the news media in Pakistan have turned against Khan. “Go Home Imran,” said a politically conservative newspaper, The Nation. Another writer called him “the Sarah Palin of Pakistan”.
Many worry that Khan’s brash tactics could endanger the country’s fragile democracy. “The protests in Islamabad threaten to upend the constitutional order, set back rule of law and open the possibility of a soft coup, with the military ruling through the back door,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group has warned. The US Embassy in Islamabad has issued a statement saying it “strongly oppose any efforts to impose extraconstitutional change”.
On the streets, Khan’s movement has the boisterous feel of a midsummer music festival. Pop stars introduce his speeches, which are punctuated by songs during which his supporters burst into dance. A disc jockey known as DJ Butt is part of his entourage.
In speeches, he has used extensive cricket analogies, referring to himself as “captain”, and his heated, often intemperate style has alienated some supporters. At one point, he threatened to send his political enemies to the Taliban so the insurgents could “deal with them”.
Addressing a crowd on August 20 after he had called off the negotiations with the government, Khan railed against the prime minister in language considered coarse even by the rowdy standards of Pakistani politics.
Khan’s call for supporters to stop paying taxes and utility bills met with widespread derision because few Pakistanis pay income taxes, and the country is already crippled with power shortages.
The protests stem from accusations of vote-rigging in the May 2013 general election. Khan accuses Sharif’s party of fixing the vote in a number of constituencies in Punjab province.
Suspicions that the military might have something to do with Khan’s movement were heightened by the appearance of Tahir-ul-Qadri, a mercurial cleric whose parallel movement has in recent days outshone Khan’s.
On one level, the dispute is about control of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province and Sharif’s political heartland. Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, knows it must challenge Sharif in Punjab to stand a chance of beating him nationally.
Pressure to resolve the crisis is rising, both from hard-liners in Sharif’s party and from residents of Islamabad, who complain about the strain the protests have put on the capital.
“The military doesn’t need to impose martial law now,” said Amir Mateen, a political analyst based in Islamabad. “Imran has weakened the entire political class, and the government is on its knees. The military can have its agenda fulfilled without doing anything.”