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Pakistani democracy is dead Imran Khan sowed the seeds of his humiliation

He only has himself to blame (ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images)

He only has himself to blame (ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images)


August 10, 2023   3 mins

Life has come full circle for Imran Khan. In 2018, he was elected to be prime minister of Pakistan after his predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, was disqualified over corruption charges resulting from the Panama Papers. Khan stated at the time that he, too, should be ejected if found guilty of anything similar, going so far as to say that he didn’t mind security agencies tapping his phone. Five years later, Khan has got what he wished for. On Tuesday, he was barred from politics for five years, a few days after he received a three-year jail sentence for corruption.

Khan has been found guilty of abusing his privileges, with the court verdict concluding that he provided “false and inaccurate” information about gifts he received as Pakistan’s head of government. But he has been embroiled in over 100 other cases. One arose after the UK’s National Crime Agency returned £190 million to Pakistan, the result of an investigation into real estate magnate Malik Riaz’s money laundering. Khan is accused of returning the money to Riaz, then receiving land worth $24.7 million from him. The trial addressing these allegations saw the former premier briefly arrested in May. Violent protests erupted against the military establishment, which was accused of orchestrating Khan’s arrest.

The Pakistan Army has a long history of meddling with politics. The government here has long been subservient to the military establishment, and the army is uncomfortable with popular civilian leaders such as Khan. By the time he was ousted in a No Confidence vote last April, he had completely fallen out with the army leadership. This was partly a result of Khan’s own antagonistic behaviour; in 2021, for instance, he named a new secret service chief, even though such appointments are only the prerogative of the prime minister in theory, and almost always dictated by the army chief in practice.

And yet, that same military establishment was undoubtedly empowered by Khan. His government extended the tenure of the then-chief of the army General Qamar Javed Bajwa, whom Khan described as the most “democratic and neutral” army chief in Pakistan’s history. In a typical turn of events, Khan’s party now holds Bajwa singlehandedly responsible for his regime’s exit.

Yet Khan was not unusual in toeing the military’s line. His successor Shehbaz Sharif, who is the younger brother of his predecessor, has reached new lows of subservience. His government has since passed bills allowing intelligence agencies to search any home without a warrant, as well as legislation giving the state absolute control over the citizen’s digital presence. It has likewise allowed the expansion of the Pakistani Taliban into new territories, unleashing jihadist turf wars that most recently saw Isis bomb a rally last week.

In discussing the current political scenario, then, we are not just discussing a former prime minister’s arrest or one man’s political future. We are talking about the demise of democracy in Pakistan, and the completion of the military’s behind-the-scenes takeover.

During this process, the army has not simply obliterated the civilian leadership; it has made a point of humiliating it. It engineered the rise of former cricketer Khan — on the platform of an independent party he set up himself — to tackle the dominance of the two major parties. The Pakistan Muslim League and the Peoples Party of Pakistan were used to going head-to-head, only occasionally worrying about the threat of military-pushed Islamist parties siphoning off votes. After Khan’s election in 2018, however, both parties were horrified that a complete outsider could manufacture enough popularity to triumph at the polls. In response, parties that once demanded that Pakistan “respect for people’s vote” and described democracy as “the best revenge” were vocally critical of a democratic result.

But it was only a matter of time before humiliation came for Khan, too. Naïve and pompous, he considered himself above the establishment’s game, and mistook his fabricated popularity for real power. The man who weaponised “anti-corruption” discourse has been helping the military enrich itself, to the tune of billions of dollars. Now, he has been certified corrupt through the same channels that he once used to undermine his opponents. Khan’s party might survive the removal of its head, but the dilapidated remains are likely to be used by the military as a pawn to keep its own monopoly in tact.

The army is all too aware that there is one thing that would actually challenge its hegemony: all parties, having been thoroughly disgraced by the establishment, coming together and saying enough is enough. With Khan’s party neutralised and the two major ones looking forward to battling it out in another election, this has now become a political impossibility in Pakistan. The army can sit back and watch the show, as civilians accuse each other of licking military boots — sometimes quite literally on live TV — while nobody admits their own role in fortifying the establishment.

The people of Pakistan can therefore look forward to the further militarisation of the state, Islamisation of the society, and pulverisation of the economy. We will have to continue coping with the decisions of an unaccountable military establishment, having been unequivocally abandoned by self-serving demagogues, of which Imran Khan is only the latest. After 15 years of ostensibly free and fair elections, one of the world’s newest democracies has died young.


Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist based in Lahore.
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Mike Downing
Mike Downing
9 months ago

Of the 400 or so people who drowned off the coast of Greece recently, 21 (I think) were Pakistanis from the same village. Get ready for the next great surge because they’ll all have a relative in Newcastle where luckily, that nice Labour Councillor Irim Ali can “regularise” their fake asylum claims.

Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Sadly that’s exactly how it is.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho

Having turned their own country into a s***h*le they are desperate to get to this country so that they can turn it into a s***h*le

Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago

Pakistanis turned their own beautiful and magical country into a Hellhole, but so did 70 years of constant American interference.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho

The UK has had had 70 years of US interference so that must be our excuse

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho

The UK has had had 70 years of US interference so that must be our excuse

Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago

Pakistanis turned their own beautiful and magical country into a Hellhole, but so did 70 years of constant American interference.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho

Having turned their own country into a s***h*le they are desperate to get to this country so that they can turn it into a s***h*le

Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Sadly that’s exactly how it is.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
9 months ago

Of the 400 or so people who drowned off the coast of Greece recently, 21 (I think) were Pakistanis from the same village. Get ready for the next great surge because they’ll all have a relative in Newcastle where luckily, that nice Labour Councillor Irim Ali can “regularise” their fake asylum claims.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago

“Pakistani democracy is dead”.

One must ask, was it EVER alive?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago

“Pakistani democracy is dead”.

One must ask, was it EVER alive?

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
9 months ago

What Pakistan needs is sound governance. Unfortunately, that only arises from sound minds and hearts.

Harmsron Jarli
Harmsron Jarli
9 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Good leadership is what Pakistan really needs. Unfortunately, that can only come from emotionally and intellectually stable people.

Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago
Reply to  Harmsron Jarli

Agreed, but also from people whose country isn’t subjected to constant American interference.

Chipoko
Chipoko
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho
Chipoko
Chipoko
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago
Reply to  Harmsron Jarli

Agreed, but also from people whose country isn’t subjected to constant American interference.

Harmsron Jarli
Harmsron Jarli
9 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Good leadership is what Pakistan really needs. Unfortunately, that can only come from emotionally and intellectually stable people.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
9 months ago

What Pakistan needs is sound governance. Unfortunately, that only arises from sound minds and hearts.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago

The only people capable of bringing ‘sound governance’ to Pakistan are the British, but sadly we have moved on.

Simon Webster
Simon Webster
9 months ago

How did governing the lands that are now Pakistan benefit the British?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Simon Webster

They didn’t really.
However once we had started conquering India we just couldn’t stop!

Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago

Almost half the soldiers of the British ‘Indian’ Empire who fought for Britain in world wars were from West Punjab in Pakistan.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho

And quite a mutinous lot as I recall.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho

Muslim, Sikh or Hindu? About a third of the Indian Army was Muslim.
The Hindu and Sikh middle class fled to India and the upper class Muslims remained which meant most ended up in India. Most of the Indian army was close to the North West Frontier.
The consequence was that Pakistan comprised a very small middle class, mostly in the Armed Services, feudal land owners such as Bhuttos and a vast uneducated mass. As early as 19th ventury Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was concerned the Muslims were not aquiring Western knowledge whereas the Hindus were keen attendees of universities.
The government supporting decent schools would mean parents less likely to send sons to extreme madrassas.
The writer ignores the increase in more extreme Islamic thought introduced by Zia ul Haq from1979 onwards and the increasing Salaafi influence at the expense of the Sufi.

Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Punjabi Muslims had a rich literature and culture of their own in the Punjabi language, supplemented by Persian and Arabic. They had no reason to learn English. Punjabi Hindus had no such literature or culture. Moreover, Punjabi Hindus belonged to low status service and trading castes who learnt the language of and worked as clerks for whoever happened to rule over them. Therefore they learnt Persian during Mughal days but adopted English during the Raj.

Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Looks like they deleted my comment which in response to your comment accurately explained why Muslims in Pakistan did not learn in English but Hindus did. It was nothing to do with one community having a greater love of education or learning. Far from it. Persian and Arabic not English were the languages of Islamic culture and civilisation. Hindus learnt English only because one of their traditional occupations, that of clerks, required it.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho

Your ignoring Brahmins, Parsees, and Sikhs and the need fpr Western Technology. .
Sir Syed Amhed Khan was concerned that Muslins were falling behind Hindus in aquiring western knowledge.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan: The champion of education – The Core Indian
At Independence, what is today Pakistan and Bangladesh lost much of the middle class who comprised Hindis, Sikhs and Parsees to India . Hence the Armed Forces provided a disproportionately large proportion of the middle classes.
The Parsees elected to stay in India.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ardaseer_Cursetjee
Jejeebhoy baronets – Wikipedi

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho

Your ignoring Brahmins, Parsees, and Sikhs and the need fpr Western Technology. .
Sir Syed Amhed Khan was concerned that Muslins were falling behind Hindus in aquiring western knowledge.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan: The champion of education – The Core Indian
At Independence, what is today Pakistan and Bangladesh lost much of the middle class who comprised Hindis, Sikhs and Parsees to India . Hence the Armed Forces provided a disproportionately large proportion of the middle classes.
The Parsees elected to stay in India.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ardaseer_Cursetjee
Jejeebhoy baronets – Wikipedi

Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Punjabi Muslims had a rich literature and culture of their own in the Punjabi language, supplemented by Persian and Arabic. They had no reason to learn English. Punjabi Hindus had no such literature or culture. Moreover, Punjabi Hindus belonged to low status service and trading castes who learnt the language of and worked as clerks for whoever happened to rule over them. Therefore they learnt Persian during Mughal days but adopted English during the Raj.

Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Looks like they deleted my comment which in response to your comment accurately explained why Muslims in Pakistan did not learn in English but Hindus did. It was nothing to do with one community having a greater love of education or learning. Far from it. Persian and Arabic not English were the languages of Islamic culture and civilisation. Hindus learnt English only because one of their traditional occupations, that of clerks, required it.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho

And quite a mutinous lot as I recall.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho

Muslim, Sikh or Hindu? About a third of the Indian Army was Muslim.
The Hindu and Sikh middle class fled to India and the upper class Muslims remained which meant most ended up in India. Most of the Indian army was close to the North West Frontier.
The consequence was that Pakistan comprised a very small middle class, mostly in the Armed Services, feudal land owners such as Bhuttos and a vast uneducated mass. As early as 19th ventury Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was concerned the Muslims were not aquiring Western knowledge whereas the Hindus were keen attendees of universities.
The government supporting decent schools would mean parents less likely to send sons to extreme madrassas.
The writer ignores the increase in more extreme Islamic thought introduced by Zia ul Haq from1979 onwards and the increasing Salaafi influence at the expense of the Sufi.

Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago

Almost half the soldiers of the British ‘Indian’ Empire who fought for Britain in world wars were from West Punjab in Pakistan.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Simon Webster

They didn’t really.
However once we had started conquering India we just couldn’t stop!

Simon Webster
Simon Webster
9 months ago

How did governing the lands that are now Pakistan benefit the British?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago

The only people capable of bringing ‘sound governance’ to Pakistan are the British, but sadly we have moved on.

Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago

This guy never tires of playing the same record on every single platform he’s given. He doesn’t say a word about The Intercept’s recent revelations confirming Imran Khan’s claims about his overthrow by the army and the Sharifs.
How about unHerd providing a platform to a more rational voice from Pakistan like Arif K. Rafiq (arifrafiq.com) ?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho

You should give them some money and they might provide a platform for what you say. Have you ever run a business lots of costs impossible to make all happy?

Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

All I’m asking for is a writer with more respect for the facts and who doesn’t cut and past virtually the same article onto every news platform.

Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

All I’m asking for is a writer with more respect for the facts and who doesn’t cut and past virtually the same article onto every news platform.

mueller reilly
mueller reilly
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho

Khan is truly a corrupt man.
basket random

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho

You should give them some money and they might provide a platform for what you say. Have you ever run a business lots of costs impossible to make all happy?

mueller reilly
mueller reilly
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Bocho

Khan is truly a corrupt man.
basket random

Jim Bocho
Jim Bocho
9 months ago

This guy never tires of playing the same record on every single platform he’s given. He doesn’t say a word about The Intercept’s recent revelations confirming Imran Khan’s claims about his overthrow by the army and the Sharifs.
How about unHerd providing a platform to a more rational voice from Pakistan like Arif K. Rafiq (arifrafiq.com) ?