Over the weekend, convoys of motorcycles and vans decked out in red, green and white rumbled along Pakistan’s historic Grand Trunk Road.
Leading the pack and waving to thousands of supporters lining the route was Imran Khan, wearing sunglasses and a neatly pressed white Pakistani salwar suit.
The country’s ousted prime minister and former cricket star has embarked on a week-long march through Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, to the capital Islamabad, hoping to whip up a large enough show of support to topple the government of rival Shehbaz Sharif and force early elections.
“For six months I have been witnessing a revolution taking over the country,” Khan wrote on Monday of the crowds that have accompanied him. “[The] only question is will it be a soft one through the ballot box or a destructive one through bloodshed?”
This “long march” is the latest gambit in Khan’s efforts to stage an unlikely political comeback. Since his removal as prime minister in a no-confidence vote in April, Khan’s support has soared as his populist messaging strikes a chord at a time of painful inflation.
Yet the former leader is also beset by a growing number of challenges that threaten to remove him from electoral politics altogether.
Pakistan’s election commission last month barred Khan from holding office over allegations he mishandled gifts he received while prime minister. He was earlier hit with now-dropped terrorism charges, levelled over alleged threatening remarks he made in a speech, and he continues to face proceedings over allegations that he illegally accepted foreign funds.
The former prime minister has also engaged in a rare stand-off with Pakistan’s powerful military, who on Thursday held an extraordinary press conference where the head of the intelligence services appeared to publicly criticise Khan’s “unconstitutional wishes”.
Azeema Cheema, a director at Verso Consulting in Islamabad, said Khan’s legal and political troubles were only making him more popular with his base. Many analysts consider him the favourite in elections to be held by next year.
“This certainly isn’t it for him,” Cheema said. “There’s a good chance that this disqualification is going to get overturned . . . As far as his supporters are concerned, they have every incentive to carry on.”
“They believe he will be the next prime minister,” she added.
The political melee comes as Sharif’s government is struggling with economic challenges that some analysts warn could force Pakistan to default on its $130bn of foreign debt. While Sharif revived a $7bn IMF rescue package in August, flooding linked to climate change has prompted the prime minister to warn that the country needs billions more in financial support.
Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party accuse Khan of taking advantage of the crisis. “We are obviously concerned because if there is dissatisfaction leading to deeper political instability . . . this can obviously lead to serious problems,” Sharif told the Financial Times in a recent interview.
But for supporters of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, the former prime minister is a rare figure brave enough to challenge decades of mismanagement and alleged venality by political and military elites.
Khan was elected prime minister in 2018 on an anti-corruption platform after the ouster of Shehbaz’s elder brother Nawaz Sharif a year earlier over a corruption scandal. Nawaz, who is in self-imposed exile in the UK, denies the allegations.
Though he struggled with economic challenges while in office, Khan’s popularity surged after he claimed he was removed through a conspiracy involving Sharif and the US.
“We have to rise to save Pakistan,” said supporter Aurangzeb Chaudhary, a 45-year-old pick-up truck driver based in Islamabad. Chaudhary said he wanted to join the march in order to blockade the capital and force the government’s collapse. “I will park my pick-up to block the road and stop all supplies to Islamabad,” he said.
For Khan’s critics, the string of cases against him have fatally undermined his reputation. The election commission ruling disqualifying him stems from allegations that Khan broke the law by selling gifts he received while in office. But Faisal Fareed, Khan’s lawyer, said the accusations were flimsy and many independent experts also believe the ruling would struggle to survive a court challenge.
Khan received partial respite on October 24, when Islamabad’s high court said he could contest a by-election that he went on to win. But the court is yet to rule on the election commission’s disqualification judgment.
Even if the cases do not stick, Khan’s opponents will hope repeated court appearances “dampen his image of being uncorrupted”, said Bilal Gilani, executive director of pollster Gallup Pakistan.
Yet they may in practice make him more popular, by reinforcing the narrative that he is being persecuted. A Gallup survey of 1,000 Pakistanis found 69 per cent thought the disqualification was wrong. “Imran Khan has caught the imagination of Pakistan’s public,” said Ghazi Salahuddin, a political columnist.
For many analysts, the biggest unknown remains the public sparring between Khan and the military, who have long played an influential if ambiguous role in Pakistan’s civilian politics. Khan, who is believed to have come to power with the military’s support, fell out with senior officers while in office.
The dispute reached a peak late last month following the killing of well-known Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif, who was shot dead by police in Kenya in unclear circumstances. Thursday’s press conference by senior generals was held following speculation, stoked by Khan and allies, that Sharif was assassinated in a Pakistan-based conspiracy.
Even if the march fails to topple Sharif’s government, analysts say it will remind Pakistan’s political and military leaders how popular Khan remains. “The objective may be to move around Punjab for a long time, make it a media show, galvanise support across the country and show the military that they are strong,” Gilani said.