Pakistan: Is PM Imran Khan's popularity waning?

Sunday's by-elections were dubbed an early test to the popularity of PM Khan, who has been criticized for "mishandling" the country's economy. Losing a number of seats in parliament doesn't augur well for his government.

The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, Movement for Justice) party was hoping to win most seats in the by-elections, but unofficial results show that the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of former PM Nawaz Sharif managed to make considerable gains in the polls.

11 National Assembly (lower house of parliament) and 24 country-wide provincial assembly seats were up for grabs in the Sunday polls, which were dubbed a preliminary test for Prime Minister Imran Khan, who won the July 25 general election, albeit with a simple majority.

Most of the seats where by-elections were held had been vacated by candidates who contested the general election in more than one seat. This included PM Khan, who had contested in five National Assembly constituencies in the July 25 polls and won all of them. 

According to the initial results of the by-elections, the PML-N and the PTI bagged four National Assembly seats each out of 11. The PTI came on top in nine provincial assembly seats as compared to six for the PML-N. But more importantly, the ruling party lost a number of seats to Sharif's party, including the ones vacated by the premier.

In short, the PML-N not only retained two of its National Assembly seats, it also unseated Khan's party from two constituencies.

Former PM Nawaz Sharif is hoping for a comeback

Khan's shortcomings

Fawad Chaudhry, the country's information minister, told media on Monday that Khan's absence from the by-election campaigning was the reason behind losing ground to the PML-N.

He said the PTI "would have won at least nine of the 11" National Assembly seats had PM Khan led the election campaign.

But some political experts see the results as a sign of a decline in Khan's popularity.

Khan won the general election on the promise of "change" and fixing the country's failing economy, with a strong emphasis on eradicating corruption. But since being inaugurated as prime minister in August, his administration has not really lived up to the expectations.

Although Khan launched an austerity drive to reduce government expenses, critics say the move has been largely superficial, as the PM's team has no real economic plan to fix Pakistan's serious structural issues.

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"Pakistan is a security state whose parliament never debates the defense budget. The military's expenditure does not even go through a parliamentary audit," Muhammad Ziauddin, former editor of the Express Tribune English newspaper, told DW.

"The military generals are running hundreds of businesses in the country, yet they pay very little tax. Still, Khan's austerity drive does not cover the generals' luxurious lifestyle. If the new government really wants to turn things around and improve the economy, then it should reduce the mammoth military budget and impose taxes on the military's economic empire," Ziauddin added.

Read more: Crowdfunding for dams — why Pakistani PM Khan's drive is not feasible

Who is Imran Khan, Pakistan's new prime minister?

Affluent upbringing

Imran Khan was born in Lahore in 1952, the son of a civil engineer. Khan grew up with his four sisters in a relatively affluent part of the city. He received a privileged education, first in his hometown and then in Worcester, England. It was there that Khan's love and talent for the game of cricket became evident. In 1972, he enrolled at Oxford University to study politics and economics.

Who is Imran Khan, Pakistan's new prime minister?

Pakistan cricket's blue-eyed boy

Khan played cricket throughout his time in England and after returning to his native Pakistan in 1976, he quickly became a regular in the national team. By 1982, he was awarded the captain's armband. Khan enjoyed an illustrious career and was regarded by many as one of the best all-rounders in the world.

Who is Imran Khan, Pakistan's new prime minister?

World champion

The ultimate high point of Khan's sporting career saw him captain Pakistan to the 1992 Cricket World Cup in Melbourne, Australia. As if his popularity couldn't get any bigger back home, Khan even took the winning wicket in the final against England.

Who is Imran Khan, Pakistan's new prime minister?

From playboy to (thrice) married man

Khan enjoyed hedonistic bachelor life and was a regular fixture on London's nightlife scene. However, in 1995, at age 42, he finally tied the knot to 21-year-old Jemima Goldsmith. During their nine-year marriage, the famous couple provided plenty of fodder for the British and Pakistani tabloids. Despite separating in 2004, Goldsmith has remained a vocal supporter of Khan's politics.

Who is Imran Khan, Pakistan's new prime minister?

Khan enters politics

Khan wasted little time after retiring from cricket in 1994. Just two years later he entered Pakistani politics and founded the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. However, his popularity was slow to carry over from cricket into politics. In the 1997 general elections, his PTI party failed to win a single seat.

Who is Imran Khan, Pakistan's new prime minister?

Political activist

Khan remained active in politics over the next decades. In 1999, he supported General Pervez Musharraf's military coup, only to later turn against Musharraf ahead of the 2007 presidential election. Khan was subsequently placed under house arrest and even spent a few days in prison. However, his supporter base continued to grow, and by 2013 he became a key candidate in the general elections.

Who is Imran Khan, Pakistan's new prime minister?

2013: Khan's political breakthrough

The PTI made substantial gains in the 2013 election, claiming 30 parliamentary seats and finishing second behind the Pakistan Muslim League. The party became the main opposition in the key provinces of Punjab and Sindh. However, its greatest feat was winning its first province in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Who is Imran Khan, Pakistan's new prime minister?

"Taliban Khan"

Khan has often been the butt of jokes for his pacifist stance towards terrorism in the region. He earned the moniker "Taliban Khan" for claiming that the only way to achieve peace with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan was through negotiation. Khan was also a vocal critic of US drones strikes on Pakistan and has promised to disengage Pakistan from America's conflicts in the Middle East.

Who is Imran Khan, Pakistan's new prime minister?

Two more marriages

Since his divorce from Goldsmith in 2004, Khan has remarried twice. In January 2015, Khan announced his marriage to British-Pakistani journalist Reham Khanm although just 10 months later the couple said they were filing for divorce. In February 2018, Khan married his third wife, Bushra Manika (pictured front row, second from the left), whom he describes as his spiritual adviser.

Who is Imran Khan, Pakistan's new prime minister?

Making waves in 2018

By 2018, Khan's PTI were among the favorites going into the general election. Campaigning on a populist platform, Khan pledged to break away from Pakistan's corrupt legacy. His plans include a poverty reduction program similar to that seen in China. This would see the establishment of an "Islamic welfare state," the creation of 10 million jobs and construction of 5 million homes for the poor.

Who is Imran Khan, Pakistan's new prime minister?

Prime Minister Imran Khan

Khan completed his journey from all-star cricketer to political leader on July 26, 2018. With most votes counted, the PTI is expected win up to 119 seats in Pakistan's 272-seat parliament. "I started this struggle 22 years ago and today I have been given a chance to fulfill what I dreamed for the country," Khan said in a televised speech. "We will run Pakistan like it's never been run before."

Pakistan's financial debt is currently estimated at $95.097 billion (€81.34 billion). The South Asian country needs $24 billion every year for debt servicing.

The country's trade deficit is also skyrocketing — $37.7 billion in the 2018 fiscal year. In the same fiscal year, Pakistan spent a whopping $60.9 billion on imports, with a big chunk going to the import of machinery for the China-led multibillion-dollar Pakistan-China Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure development initiative.

The petroleum and gas prices have spiked in the past month, and the government has asked for a multibillion dollar bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As opposition leader, Khan often slammed former premiers for "begging" international financial institutions to rescue the country. The IMF bailout request is being seen as one of the many U-turns Khan's populist government has taken since coming to power.

"Some of their (the government's) rhetoric and actions are markedly superficial, which does not bolster confidence in their approach," Madiha Afzal, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, told DW.

Read more: Tackling Pakistan's pathetic economy: Is Imran Khan up to the task?

But Senator Faisal Javed Khan told DW the main thing is to restore people's confidence in the government. "The Pakistanis are generous people and they gave a lot of donations to Imran Khan [for his cancer hospital]. They did so because they trust him. And because they have faith in their prime minister, I'm sure they will also pay taxes," Khan said.

Not a big dent

The poor performance in Sunday's by-elections, however, should not be seen as a threat to Khan's rule, experts warn.

Khan's supporters say it is too early to evaluate the performance of Khan's government and that Pakistan's economic and security issues need a long-term plan.

Also, Khan still enjoys the backing of the country's powerful military, as many analysts claim the generals helped Khan win the July 25 election.

Read more: Reporting Pakistan election under the military's shadow

"Most political parties have challenged the fairness and transparency of the July 25 general election," Asif Kirmani, a Sharif aide, told DW.

Although Former PM Sharif was released from jail on bail last month, he is still facing corruption charges and is not completely off the hook. Earlier this month, Shahbaz Sharif, his brother and the current PML-N head, was also arrested on corruption allegations by the National Accountability Bureau.

"Sharif can create problems for Khan. The incumbent premier is responsible for Sharif's ouster, so I think the former prime minster will try to make things difficult for Khan," Amjad Shoaib, a retired military official, told DW.

"Sharif will try to unite the opposition against Khan. He is likely to hold public rallies and demonstrations. He is also free to speak against the [military] establishment," Shoaib said.

Analysts, however, say the PML-N is not in a positon to pose a big challenge to Khan in spite of performing well in the by-elections. Still, a continued "bad performance" by Khan's government could persuade all opposition parties to join forces and increase pressure on the current administration.

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Additional reporting by S. Khan, DW's correspondent in Islamabad.

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DW News | 05.09.2018

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