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Does Imran Khan have a future in Pakistani politics?

Opposition leader Imran Khan wanted to bring down Pakistani PM Sharif's government through street protests, but he has failed to do so once again. Many in the country are already questioning his political acumen.

For many weeks leading to a planned anti-government rally in Islamabad, TV channels in Pakistan supporting opposition leader Imran Khan and his Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice, PTI) party had been talking about a "revolution" that would ultimately overthrow Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government. PTI supporters, anguished by Khan's previous attempt to topple the government in 2014, had very high hopes this time around. Some analysts were claiming that the country's powerful military generals were also supporting Khan and his anti-government drive. Social media was rife with posts projecting Khan's "impending victory" over Sharif. The lockdown of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, was only a matter of time despite the authorities' extensive measures to barricade the city. But then everything changed in a matter of hours.

Khan is holding a smaller-than-planned rally in Islamabad on Wednesday, November 2, but he retracted from his earlier call to shut down the capital and paralyze the state machinery. On Tuesday, the country's Supreme Court ordered a formal investigation into corruption allegations against the premier. The government agreed to the court's decision, and Khan was left with no choice but to call off his planned protests. Most analysts in the South Asian country said it was a shrewd move on Sharif's part – agreeing to the court's order at a time when the opposition activists were about to storm the capital.

Khan's supporters still hope that PM Sharif, who came to power after winning the 2013 parliamentary election, will either tender his resignation in the coming weeks due to public pressure or that the Supreme Court will eventually disqualify him.

The corruption allegations against the premier are very serious, and it is true that Sharif generally dodged them in the past. The PM has found himself in a difficult situation following the "revelations" made by the so-called Panama Papers. Leaked documents show that three of the prime minister's children had links with offshore companies that owned properties in London.

Sharif and his family denied the allegations, but the local media and opposition parties, particularly Khan's PTI, are accusing him of corruption and tax evasion.

"I am elated that the investigation into Nawaz Sharif's [alleged corruption] will begin the day after tomorrow," Khan told his party activists on Tuesday.

But the apex court's decision will take some time, giving Sharif the room to maneuver. Even if he is impeached, his party will remain in power, thus leaving Khan out of power until the next general election in 2018.

Disappointment

Some PTI supporters say their leader Khan should have gone ahead with planned protests, and that he has disappointed them twice in two years. Many political experts are now questioning Khan's political acumen, his strategies, and more importantly, his future in Pakistani politics.

"After over a week of drama, the party wasted the time and efforts of active supporters in the garrison city (Rawalpindi, near Islamabad) and suddenly changed the plan," Mohammad Abbas, a PTI activist, told Pakistan's Dawn newspaper.

Arshad Mahmood, an Islamabad-based rights activist, is skeptical about Khan's political future: "Imran Khan had created a big hype about his anti-Sharif rally in the months preceding the planned 'shutdown' of the capital. But what came out of it? Nothing. Khan is not suited for politics at all. His supporters must consider this fact now," Mahmood told DW.

Pakistan Protest Imran Khan (Reuters/F.Aziz)

Khan's supporters were hoping for a 'revolution' that would overthrow PM Sharif's government

From cricket star to a top politician

Imran Khan is a relatively newcomer in Pakistani politics. Pakistan's former cricket captain Khan entered politics in the late 1990s, forming the PTI. Although he was loved by millions in the country as one of the greatest cricketers the country has ever produced, and more significantly, under whose leadership Pakistan won its first Cricket World Cup in 1992, Khan wasn't considered a serious politician even by his ardent fans. But he is now one of the key players in Pakistani politics.

Khan's PTI came third in the May 2013 parliamentary elections and now rules the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan. He wants Islamabad to make peace with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and sever its alliance with the US in the "war against terror."

The manifesto of Khan's party resonates well with a large section of the Pakistani middle class due to its emphasis on governance issues - particularly corruption and political accountability.

"Khan's stance on corruption, terrorism and nepotism in Pakistani politics has struck a chord with the masses, which are fed up with the traditional ruling elite. He has no corruption charges on him, no foreign assets," claims PTI activist in Islamabad, Khawar Sohail.

But some observers argue that Khan is backed by Pakistan's right-wing groups, in particular the military establishment, because of his "soft" stance on the Taliban and other Islamist militants. His rise in Pakistani politics, they claim, is due to his "good relations" with the military's Inter-Services Intelligence organization. Khan agrees with the agency's position on matters such as Afghanistan and Pakistan's national security, they say.

Bildergalerie Cricket Imran Khan Politik (Getty Images)

Khan is widely regarded as one of the greatest cricketers Pakistan has ever produced

But most people in Pakistan are not bothered about the country's Afghanistan policy or its ties with Washington. They need jobs, security and an end to corruption in governmental departments. For them it is not important whether friendly ties with India would put Pakistan on the path of progress in the coming years; they want change now. That is why Khan has been able to capitalize on public sentiment against "traditional" politicians like the Sharifs and the Bhuttos.

Three years in power

But some analysts say that the debate about Khan's Islamist or liberal credentials is actually taking the spotlight away from his performance as a politician and the leader of a party which governs an important province of the country.

Khan promised speedy justice and an end to corruption in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province after taking its reins in 2013. During the election campaign, he also said his party would curb violence and bring peace to a restive province bordering Afghanistan.

Khan's PTI has been in power in the province for more than three years, yet critics state that most of his election promises have not been fulfilled.

"The government in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has not delivered anything to people. Corruption and nepotism are rampant and there hasn't been any significant development work in the past eight months," said Qasim Jan, a student in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

"Khan has only focused on protesting US drone strikes in the northwestern tribal areas, blocking the NATO supply route to Afghanistan, and coming up with all sorts of excuses in support of the militants," he added.

Activist Mahmood agrees: "Things are pretty much the same as they were in the past. Khan's party workers consider themselves to be above the law and won't cooperate with the administration. If the PTI officials don't obey the law, how will the governance be improved?" said Mahmood.

Pakistan Nawaz Sharif (Getty Images/AFP/J. Samad)

Panama Papers show that three of the PM's children had links with offshore companies

But Khan's supporters, which comprise mainly Pakistani youth, feel his administration is being unfairly criticized.

"The government has made great strides into a faster and more effective judicial system. The education budget of the province is much bigger than in other provinces. Yes, there are problems, but things are improving," Zakria Zubair, a young entrepreneur in Islamabad, told DW. The 29-year-old PTI supporter also says that Imran Khan is playing the role of a competent opposition leader in the country's lower house of parliament.

What's next for Khan?

The Supreme Court will now decide the corruption allegations on Sharif. According to some legal experts, the Panama Papers are not necessarily evidence of corruption, as using offshore structures is somewhat legal. Also, corruption scandals involving the politicians are not a new occurrence in the Islamic country. Former President Asif Ali Zardari has been accused of massive corruption, and there are already court cases against him. Sharif, too, can deal with them legally, but the more pressing issue, which opposition leader Khan has also hinted at, is the tussle between civilian and military structures, mainly due to Sharif's insistence on friendly ties with neighboring India, which the army opposes.

Khan has tried twice to exploit the civilian-military rifts, but hasn't succeeded. He should rely on the masses, his supporters, and try to shrug off the image of a pro-army politician. Also, he should wait for the next election and hope the Pakistani people will elect him as their prime minister.

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