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'Imran's no typical Pakistani leader'

May 12, 2023 11:34 IST
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'He's charismatic, a populist, very popular, and indeed a cult of personality.'
'That ensures a powerful reaction from his support base -- even if it's not sustained, it will be quite intense, and that's worrisome for stability.'

IMAGE: An Imran Khan supporter during a protest against the former Pakistan prime minister's arrest in Peshawar, May 10, 2023. All Photographs: Fayaz Aziz/Reuters

"Imran Khan hasn't been controllable since his falling out with the army leadership. The State likely concluded that the only way to control him is to arrest him," explains Dr Michael Kugelman, Director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, the Washington, DC-based think-tank.

A leading specialist on Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and their relations with the United States, Dr Kugelman gives an insightful and must-read interview about what is unraveling in Pakistan to's Archana Masih.

The concluding segment of a two-part interview:


Do you believe he can return to power in the elections later this year?

He could return, with a large litany of caveats.

First, there needs to be an election. One can't rule out the government postponing it on the pretext of social unrest, not to mention the economic and security reasons it cited to justify waiting until October to hold the KPK (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and Punjab elections.

Second, the election would need to be free and fair.

If it is, he would have a strong chance of being reelected, given his popularity and PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf)'s strong performance in multiple local polls since Khan's ouster.

But if the civilian and military leadership try to take steps to hinder his electoral prospects -- pressuring certain parliamentarians to vote against Khan, engaging in rigging, and so on -- then he would face challenges.

Third, Khan would have to be eligible to participate in an election in order to win it. If he's disqualified, he'll be ineligible.

IMAGE: Police officers in riot gear stand guard outside a Radio Pakistan office building after it was set afire in Peshawar, May 11, 2023.

As a longtime observer of Pakistan where every PM has been arrested in the past, is there anything that is different in the way Imran was arrested on Tuesday?

Actually, not really. Pakistani political figures have been arrested in so many different ways -- some banal, some quite dramatic. Khan's came out in the latter category.

But what's different in this context is Khan himself. He's no typical Pakistani political leader. He's charismatic, a populist, very popular, and indeed a cult of personality. That all ensures a powerful reaction from his support base -- even if it's not sustained, it will be quite intense, and that's worrisome for stability.

Pakistan has had political figures like this arrested in the past -- Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto come to mind -- but it's been a long time since there's been one like Khan.

IMAGE: A man covers his face as he walks on a road covered with stones during a protest against Imran Khan's arrest.

Reeling under economic crisis, can Pakistan afford political turmoil at this juncture?

In short, absolutely not.

Shortly before Khan was arrested, Moody's issued an assessment warning that Pakistan would likely default if it doesn't agree to a deal with the IMF to unlock $1.1 billion in support by the end of June.

Getting that funding was unlikely before his arrest; it's now all but impossible. With Pakistan buffeted by political chaos, the IMF isn't about to do any favours for the government.

Also, let's be clear: Image of protestors' attacks on state infrastructure and street battles with security forces aren't exactly going to make potential investors and even trusted bilateral donors -- including Beijing, whose foreign minister made a rare public plea for greater political stability just last weekend -- want to deploy capital to Pakistan.

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