Imran Khan, the ex-Pakistani Prime Minister, accuses opponents of conspiracies : NPR
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ISLAMABAD — Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told NPR he believes his opponents will try to have him killed or imprisoned, and predicts they will try to delay federal elections scheduled for this fall — elections he thinks his party would “sweep”.
The government denies these claims and says they are made to incite Khan’s supporters.
Khan’s statements highlight the deep polarization in Pakistan, a country that seems to be teetering from crisis to crisis. Yet analysts say this country, the world’s fifth most populous and nuclear-armed nation, faces a particularly dire moment.
Soaring inflation has forced families to cut food spending, millions are on the brink of starvation and the country is on the brink of economic bankruptcy as the International Monetary Fund blocks the disbursement of a tranche of its current bailout plan in the country.
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The situation is exacerbated by a political crisis, as Khan demands elections that would almost certainly topple the unpopular ruling coalition. Khan’s supporters also clashed with Pakistani security forces in scenes that analysts say are unprecedented in Pakistan’s tumultuous history.
“What’s happening is the government is petrified by the election,” Khan said. “They are afraid that we will win the election. Therefore, they are trying everything to sideline me, including assassination,” said Khan, who survived an assassination attempt in November when a man armed shot him in the leg.
Khan spoke to NPR’s Steve Inskeep on Zoom from his home in the Pakistani city of Lahore, which he called a fortress. “Fortress Lahore,” Khan said smiling. He said his home was attacked by police and paramilitary forces known as Rangers. “To take me away, not to arrest me,” he said. “It’s been exciting times here.”
Khan was referring to an attempt by police last Tuesday to arrest him after he skipped multiple hearings in a corruption case he is involved in – one of dozens he is currently fighting. Khan’s supporters, who keep a constant vigil outside his residence, clashed with police for nearly 24 hours, throwing rocks at them and beating them with sticks as forces responded with volleys of tear gas. Clashes erupted again in the Pakistani capital Islamabad on Saturday as Khan sought to attend a court hearing to avoid arrest.
Khan said his supporters were “extremely worried” that the security forces would “kidnap me or kill me. So, you know, you have all these supporters standing there, you know, camped outside my house protecting me.” .
Interior Minister of Pakistan, Rana Sanaullahcalled those supporters an “armed gang” and accused Khan of spreading lies by claiming that security forces were planning an attack on him.
Pakistani Defense Minister Khwaja Asif, also rejects claims that there was a plan to kill Khan. “It’s all so outrageous, this allegation,” Asif said in response to a question from NPR at a press conference he held in Islamabad on Friday. He described it as a claim Khan used to inflame his followers, whom he likened to a “sect”. “This allegation of conspiracy to murder him – I think that’s, you know, going a bit too far.”
Khan referred to the trials he is facing as an attempt by his opponents to try to tire him out and disqualify him from running for office. He denied the charges against him, saying “it’s to put me away”.
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Analysts say filing multiple charges against prominent figures is one way the military establishment is using in particular to bring down its rivals.
But Khan insisted it would not affect his party’s popularity. “It doesn’t matter because the party I’m leading now has an unprecedented wave of popularity in our history. So whether I’m in jail or not, the party is going to sweep the election anyway,” he said. he declared.
On Thursday, Pakistan’s Election Commission announced that elections in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, would be postponed from April 30 to October 8, despite a Supreme Court ruling ordering the elections to be held on time. Khan said he feared the government would delay the next federal election, scheduled for October.
Analysts said the current coalition government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif hopes to delay the election as it tries to bolster its popularity, which has been devastated by the country’s economic crisis.
But As if, the Minister of Defence, insisted that they would be held on time. “National elections are scheduled for October and they will be held on time,” Asif said, while acknowledging that the government’s popularity had waned in the last year of rule.
The parties that form the current government also appear concerned that if Khan – who served as prime minister from 2018 until last year – becomes prime minister again, he will resume his crackdown on his opponents.
Khan tells NPR he will pursue corruption cases, particularly against the two political dynasties that have dominated Pakistan’s civilian governments for the past few decades – the Bhuttos and the Sharifs. His supporters widely view both families as corrupt.
“It is not the severity of the laws – it is the certainty of punishment that stops crime in Pakistan. The powerful have always managed to steal the country’s money because they are above the law,” Khan said. “So I will fight in Pakistan to bring the powerful elite under law. That’s the fight. The moment we do that, we provide a level playing field for our people, you know, to excel.”
At his press conference, Asif said there was a glaring contradiction in Khan’s insistence on the rule of law: the former prime minister repeatedly skipped court appearances and his supporters are regularly clashed with the security forces.
Khan’s critics say his constant attacks on his political rivals are partly to blame for the deep polarization in Pakistan today. While Khan was in power, he was unable to successfully pursue cases against his rivals. His critics say it was because there was not enough evidence, while Khan insists the former army chief helped them avoid prosecution.
Moreover, the perception of corruption in Pakistan actually worsened under Khan’s rule. Anti-corruption aid group Transparency International said in its 2022 report that Pakistan was ranked at 140 – under the previous government it was ranked at 124, with 180 being the most corrupt.
A tense relationship with the Pakistani army
Khan’s relationship with the military – once seen as extremely close – soured when he was ousted from power in April last year after a no-confidence vote against his rule. It came after the military, Pakistan’s most powerful institution, signaled it would no longer support Khan.
Khan initially blamed Washington for his ouster, but more recently offered a more complicated narrative in which he claims former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa orchestrated a campaign to turn Washington against him.
Asif, the defense minister, called the claims “completely irrational”.
Khan said the relationship between Pakistan and the United States “must embrace two things: dignity and respect.”
“Unfortunately, the relationship between Pakistan and the United States has always been unbalanced, mainly because we keep asking for money,” Khan said. So the United States, he said, treats Pakistan like “people begging for money”.
The current coalition government is struggling to convince the IMF to resume a rescue plan to shore up the country’s dwindling foreign exchange reserves. This rescue plan, in any case, should expire by the summer. Economists have expressed doubts that the institution will agree to another bailout ahead of the election.
Khan said holding fair elections would “bring political stability as a government would come in with a five-year term”, he said, “to have sweeping 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.