Imran Khan, who is by far the most popular politician in the country, former prime minister and former cricket champion, is in prison, sentenced in two different trials to three and ten years in prison respectively; a winner has already designated by the real government of the country (the army), i.e. the ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif; arrests and mysterious disappearances of opponents, such as followers of Imran himself or the nationalists of Balochistan, have continued unabated for years. The general elections to be held in Pakistan on February 8 are unlikely to provide any surprises.
Rather, it will be yet another confirmation that Pakistan’s apparent democracy is in reality nothing more than a cover for the almost absolute power exercised by the military. The prospects for a country of over 230 million inhabitants (at least 45 percent of whom are under 18 years of age) with a disastrous economy supported only by the generosity of the Chinese and Arab “allies”, are easy to imagine.
Imran is certainly not the first prominent politician to end up in prison or be physically eliminated. Among others, it happened to at least two members of the powerful Bhutto family (the founder of the “dynasty”, Zulfikar Ali, who was hanged in 1979 by the military dictator Zia ul-Haq, and his daughter Benazir, killed in 2007 in an attack whose instigators remained a mystery), and to Zia himself, who died in 1988 when the plane on which he was traveling with other high-ranking officers and two American diplomats crashed (in this case as well the origin of the attack remained unsolved, but the most accredited hypothesis is that it was an “internal job” within the army).
Many others – including Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari – spent long years in prison or were forced into exile, like Nawaz Sharif himself. Both – Zardari and now Nawaz – were lucky enough to have a second emergence (the former was President of the Republic from 2008 to 2013) while the latter has been recovered from his exile in London, where he had taken refuge in 2017 after having been prime minister three times and then fired and accused of corruption.
His is an exemplary career for a Pakistani politician, determined by his fluctuating relationships with the military. As a young man, Nawaz – born into a wealthy family of landowners in Punjab – was a “protege” of the dictator Zia ul-Haq. Once Zia disappeared from the scene, he became leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, then went on to become prime minister three times (1990-93, 1997-98, 2013-17). Overestimating his power, in 1999 he tried to get rid of troublesome army chief Pervez Musharraf by trying to stop his plane from landing after a trip abroad. Musharraf was saved by his allies in the army and seized power upon his return, subsequently forcing Nawaz into exile in Saudi Arabia. In Pakistan, the fortunes of politicians – even those of military-politicians – are changeable, and in the following years it was Musharraf who fell from grace and was forced into exile (he died in Dubai in 2023), while Nawaz returned to his homeland to reoccupy the seat of prime minister, only to be forced to flee abroad once again in 2017.
Imran Khan has been on a similar path. The former cricket champion, now 71 years old, came to power in 2018, with a sort of plebiscite decreed mainly by young voters. As well as, of course, the support of the military.
Khan was removed after an open clash with army leaders over the renewal of some important military positions.
His “political line” has never been entirely clear. Imran is a nationalist, a religious fanatic who has openly sympathized with the Afghan Taliban, a great admirer of China and, above all, he is a ruthless critic of the USA. When he was forced to resign following a vote of no confidence in Parliament in 2022, he attributed his defeat to a “conspiracy” orchestrated by Washington, without however providing any evidence to support his accusations.
Pakistanis’ relationship with the USA is a strange, love-hate relationship. But the real relations between the two countries are maintained by the military, relations that have developed over decades during jointly fought battles. When Indira Gandhi’s India proclaimed itself non-aligned and flirted with Moscow, the Americans supported the Pakistani military on various occasions, providing them with weapons and advisors. This was followed by shared support for the Afghan mujahideen fighting against the Russians – then the Soviets – who had invaded their country. Pakistan and the USA also collaborated in the strategic operation to get closer to China with an anti-Soviet purpose: in 1971, the first trip to Beijing by the then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (the president was Richard Nixon) was covered by an “illness” while he was visiting Islamabad.
Those relations have continued with ups and downs, proof of which is that last December it was not a politician who went to reassure the Americans about the situation in the country in view of the elections, but the army chief Asim Munir himself.
Once again it seems that the Pakistani military has managed to maintain the difficult balance that sees them closely linked to China (and the monarchies of the Arabian Gulf) without giving up Washington’s “friendship”.
However, among the impoverished young people of the metropolises and countryside of Pakistan – and in particular Punjab – anti-Americanism, seasoned with imaginative conspiracy theories, is always popular and is one of the cards that Imran has successfully played. A poll recently carried out by Gallup showed that the former cricket champion enjoys a 57 percent a voter approval rating, which will not save him from electoral defeat, given that many of his collaborators are also in prison or have been forced to not participate in the elections. The few remaining in the running will have to present themselves individually, because their party, the Pakistan Tehreek e-Insaaf (Party of Justice), was not admitted with its symbol. With all this, Imran remains popular and remains a political force, even if his personal fate appears uncertain.
Another round, another race, and now it’s Nawaz’s turn. His new period in government will be dominated by two questions that are impossible to answer today: how long will his flirtation with the military last? And what will become of Imran Khan?
Translation by Paul Rosenberg
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