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ISLAMABAD — Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan tells Centre County Report he believes his opponents will try to have him killed or imprisoned and predicts they will seek to delay federal elections scheduled for this fall — elections by which he believes his party would “sweep”.
The government denies these claims, saying they were made to blast Khan’s supporters.
Khan’s comments highlight the deep polarization in Pakistan, a country that appears to be reeling from crisis to crisis. But analysts say this country, the fifth most populous and nuclear-armed country in the world, is facing a particularly dire moment.
Rising inflation has forced families to restrict food, millions are starving and the country is on the brink of economic default as the International Monetary Fund falters in releasing a tranche of its latest bailout package for the country.
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The situation is exacerbated by a political crisis as Khan calls for elections that would almost certainly overthrow the unpopular ruling coalition. Khan’s supporters have also clashed with Pakistani security forces in scenes analysts say are uCentre County Reportecedented in Pakistan’s turbulent history.
“What’s happening is the government is petrified ahead of elections,” Khan said. “They are afraid that we will win the elections, so they are trying everything to get rid of me, including murder,” said Khan, who survived an apparent attempt on his life in November when a gunman shot him in the leg.
Khan spoke to Centre County Report’s Steve Inskeep via Zoom from his home in the Pakistani city of Lahore, which he called a fortress. “Lahore Fortress,” Khan said, smiling. He said his home was attacked by police and paramilitary forces known as the Rangers. “To kidnap me, not arrest me,” he said. “It was exciting times here.”
Khan was referring to a police attempt last Tuesday to arrest him after skipping several court sessions in a corruption case he is involved in – one of dozens of cases he is currently fighting. Khan’s supporters, who hold a constant vigil outside his residence, clashed with police, pelting them with stones and beating them with sticks for nearly 24 hours, while the armed forces responded with volleys of tear gas. Clashes erupted again in the Pakistani capital Islamabad on Saturday as Khan attempted to attend a court hearing to avoid arrest.
Khan said his supporters were “extremely concerned” that the security forces would either “kidnap me or kill me. So, you know, these supporters are all standing there, you know, they’ve camped outside my house to protect me.”
Pakistan’s interior minister, Rana Sanaullahreferred to these supporters as “armed gang‘ and has accused Khan of spreading lies by claiming security forces were planning an attack against him.
Pakistani Defense Minister Khwaja Asif, also denies allegations that there was a plan to kill Khan. “The whole thing is so scandalous, this allegation,” Asif said in response to a question from Centre County Report at a press conference he held in Islamabad on Friday. He described it as a claim Khan used to whip up his followers, whom he likened to a “cult”. “This accusation of conspiring to murder him — I think that’s going a little too far.”
Khan has described the court cases he is facing as an attempt by his opponents to wear him out and ban him from voting. He has dismissed the charges against him, saying that “it’s to get me out of the way”.
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Analysts say the filing of multiple indictments against prominent figures is a way the military establishment is particularly using to bring down its rivals.
But Khan insisted it would not hurt his party’s popularity. “It doesn’t matter because the party I lead is now enjoying a surge in popularity uCentre County Reportecedented in our history. So whether I’m in jail or not, the party will win the elections anyway,” he said.
On Thursday, the Pakistani Electoral Commission announced that elections in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, would be delayed from April 30 to October 8, despite a Supreme Court ruling ordering elections to be held in a timely manner. Khan said he was concerned the government would postpone the next federal election, which is expected in October.
Analysts have said Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s current coalition government hopes to postpone the elections as it seeks to shore up its popularity, which has been devastated by the country’s economic crisis.
But As if, the Secretary of Defense, insisted they would go ahead as scheduled. “National elections are due in October and will be held on time,” Asif said, although he acknowledged that the government’s popularity had waned over the past year of rule.
The parties that make up the current government also appear concerned that if Khan – who was prime minister from 2018 until last year – becomes prime minister again, he will resume his crackdown on his opponents.
Khan tells Centre County Report he will pursue corruption cases, particularly against the two political dynasties that have dominated Pakistan’s civilian rule for the past few decades – the Bhuttos and the Sharifs. His followers widely view both families as corrupt.
“It’s not the strictness of the law – it’s the certainty of punishment that stops crime in Pakistan. The powerful have always gotten away with stealing money from the country because they are above the law,” Khan said. “So I will fight in Pakistan to bring the powerful elite under the law. This is the fight.
In his press conference, Asif said there was a glaring contradiction in Khan’s insistence on the rule of law: the former prime minister has repeatedly skipped court appearances and his supporters have routinely clashed with security forces.
Khan’s critics say his constant attacks on his political rivals are partly responsible for the deep polarization of Pakistan today. While Khan was in power, he was unable to successfully prosecute cases against his rivals. His critics say it was because there was insufficient evidence, while Khan insists the former army chief helped them avert prosecution.
In addition, the perception of corruption in Pakistan actually deteriorated during Khan’s rule. Anti-corruption agency Transparency International said in its 2022 report that Pakistan was ranked 140th – under the previous government it had peaked at 124th, with 180 being the most corrupt.
A strained relationship with the Pakistani military
Khan’s relationship with the military – once thought to be extremely close – soured when he was ousted from power in April last year following a vote of no confidence in his rule. It came after the military, Pakistan’s most powerful institution, indicated it would no longer support Khan.
Khan first blamed Washington for his ouster, but more recently he has offered a more complicated narrative, alleging that former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa orchestrated a campaign to turn Washington against him.
Defense Minister Asif called these claims “completely irrational”.
Khan said the Pakistan-US relationship “must encompass two things – dignity and respect”.
“Unfortunately, the relationship between Pakistan and the US has always been one-sided, mostly because we keep asking for money,” Khan said. So the US treated Pakistan like “people begging for money”.
The current coalition government is struggling to persuade the IMF to resume a bailout to shore up the country’s dwindling foreign exchange reserves. That bailout is expected to end by the summer. Economists have expressed doubts that the institution would agree to another bailout with elections approaching.
Khan said fair elections would “bring political stability because a government with a five-year mandate would come,” he said, “to carry out major reforms.”
Inskeep interviewed Imran Khan from Washington, DC; Hadid reported from Islamabad. Ally Schweitzer edited the audio interview with Khan and Majd Al-Waheidi produced it for the web.