The Washington Post

Pakistani election upset favors return to power of ex-prime minister

Khan, forced out months ago, has campaigned hard for his party

- BY PAMELA CONSTABLE Shaiq Hussain contribute­d to this report.

islamabad, pakistan — Just over three months ago, Imran Khan, the charismati­c Pakistani prime minister, was abruptly forced to step down. As he struggled to prop up the collapsing economy and cling to power, risking a constituti­onal crisis, his rivals formed a hodgepodge coalition in parliament and allegedly lured a handful of Khan loyalists to defect. Shortly after midnight on April 10, he was gone in a 30-minute vote.

Ever since his humiliatin­g defeat, the former cricket star, 69, has campaigned hard for a political comeback, drawing large youthful crowds to boisterous rallies across the country. In an angrier version of the impassione­d, anti-elitist rhetoric that swept him to office in 2018, he has doubled down on vague charges of massive vote-stealing and an American-backed “conspiracy” to topple him, demanding that new elections be held.

On July 17, his one-man vendetta gained sudden traction when his party scored a stunning political upset, winning 15 of 20 open legislativ­e seats in Punjab province. Punjab is the most important political and economic region in Pakistan, and the stronghold of the ruling party, headed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. The contest was held under court order to replace lawmakers who had abandoned Khan’s party.

The unexpected pro-khan landslide sent shock waves through the Sharif government, a fragile coalition of nine parties that is preoccupie­d by two nationwide emergencie­s: a plummeting economy and extreme punishing weather. The first crisis, marked by record inflation, has left millions of poor Pakistanis facing soaring food and fuel costs, while the second has left vast agricultur­al lands dying of drought or flooded by torrential rains.

On Friday, Khan and his Pakistan Movement for Justice seemed poised to win a second victory, one that might have forced the Sharif government to call for new elections. In this case, the court-ordered vote was held in the provincial legislativ­e assembly to fill the powerful post of Punjab chief minister, temporaril­y held by Sharif ’s son Hamza Shahbaz. Khan had warned there were official vote-buying schemes afoot, but at 10 p.m., when all 369 votes were counted, the deputy speaker announced that Khan’s candidate had earned 186 votes, more than enough to win.

Then events took a bizarre twist. A prior letter from a minor political party leader was produced, asking legislativ­e officials not to count its block of 10 votes unless they favored Shahbaz. This followed separate complaints of technical irregulari­ties from other pro-government figures. With that, the deputy speaker subtracted 10 votes from Khan’s side and declared that Shahbaz had won by 3 votes. As shouts and protests rose, the exercise collapsed in turmoil and confusion.

Shortly after 11 p.m., a stern Khan appeared on television. He expressed “shock” at the day’s events, called on supporters to hold peaceful protests across the country and said he would petition the Supreme Court to intervene. He charged that the election had been bought “the way sheep and goats are sold” and singled out Asif Ali Zardari, a wealthy former Pakistani president now allied with the Sharif government, as the mastermind of the plot, calling him a thief who “buys democracy through black money.”

But Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah told journalist­s in Lahore, the Punjab capital, that the decision to keep Shahbaz in office would “promote democracy and tolerance.” He accused Khan of attempting to “create chaos and anarchy in the country” and warned that if he fomented mass protests, “we will teach you to respect the law” and “not allow you to destabiliz­e the country. We will stop you.”

The Supreme Court said Saturday that it would review the conduct of the Friday vote, which could restore Khan’s candidate, Pervez Elahi, as the winner. But whatever the outcome, many observers view the noisy political slugfest as an unfortunat­e national embarrassm­ent and another black eye for the weak democracy in Pakistan, a political grudge match that has taken precedence over more dire problems facing the impoverish­ed country of 220 million.

“Our economy is in very bad shape, and this political uncertaint­y will add more to our woes,” Ayaz Amir, a veteran newspaper columnist and former liberal legislator, told Dunya Television. “The politician­s are focused on power politics and not paying any attention to the real issues,” especially inflation, he said. Pakistani leaders, he said, should show “better sense” instead of “denying people their mandate. Otherwise, I only see chaos and destructio­n ahead.”

In some ways, Khan has benefited from being an outside critic while his successors must grapple with an economic catastroph­e they inherited from him. While in power, Khan was said to have jeopardize­d a crucial debt bailout deal with the Internatio­nal Monetary Fund when he cut fuel and food costs as he fought to stay in power. Now, the Sharif government has been forced to reverse those policies, making tough and unpopular decisions to salvage the bailout.

Khan has also been free to campaign in poor agricultur­al regions whiplashed by drought and torrential rains, commiserat­ing with desperate villagers and promising to help them if he returns to power. Last week, he visited a flooded area in southern Punjab, where video footage showed throngs of villagers wading barefoot through ruined fields of muddy water, eager to reach the puddled highway where Khan and his aides were waiting in a caravan.

“I was worried that the heavy rains would keep people away, but they walked for miles through the mud and rain, without umbrellas or shoes, to respond to his call,” said Ghulam Sarwar, a legislator for Khan’s party from Sahiwal, the sodden district Khan visited that day. “We grow a lot of wheat and cotton, but we have faced deadly heat and floods,” he said, adding that the Khan government helped small farmers with loans for seeds and fertilizer. “The people here love him, and they will vote for him again,” he said.

Khan has also cultivated huge urban followings since his ouster, holding rallies in cities to promote new elections, rail against incumbent leaders as corrupt and denounce alleged foreign designs against Pakistani independen­ce. On Thursday, the night before the second Punjab election, he suddenly called on his fans to gather in major cities, including Islamabad, and thousands rushed to comply.

In a televised speech that night, broadcast on large outdoor screens via video link, Khan warned of new vote-buying schemes and called on supporters to protest any fraud. He also reprised his vague accusation­s of an American conspiracy to bring “slavery” and “imported government” to Pakistan, which U.S. officials have denied. But the mood of the rallygoers was upbeat and hopeful.

“He is the only honest leader in this country, the only one who cares about us. All the other politician­s are thieves,” said Raja Wali, 30, a driver who brought his wife and two children to the rally. Others in the crowd praised Khan for improving health-care access for the poor and bringing economic developmen­t to their chronicall­y impoverish­ed country.

“We are all in the mud now, but he wants to bring us out of it,” said Amir Qureshi, 53, a shoe store owner and volunteer organizer for Khan’s party. “We don’t want Pakistan to become like Sri Lanka, where everything fell apart and blew up. We want it to keep growing, we want new elections soon, and we want him to come back.”

 ?? Sohail SHAHZAD/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTO­CK ?? Imran Khan, center, leads a march in Pakistan. The charismati­c former leader seeks to defeat the coalition government that ousted him.
Sohail SHAHZAD/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTO­CK Imran Khan, center, leads a march in Pakistan. The charismati­c former leader seeks to defeat the coalition government that ousted him.

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