The turbulent campaign led by Imran Khan, currently Pakistan’s most popular politician, to return to power is taking advantage of an economic crisis that has left many people unable to feed their families, according to analysts.
The arrest of the former prime minister, on May 9, on charges of corruption, who was released after 3 days, sparked violent protests by his supporters, causing damage to public buildings and military installations. The clashes resulted in the death of at least 9 people.
Khan, 70, rose to popularity after he was ousted in a no-confidence motion in April 2022. The fragile coalition that left him struggled to stabilize an economy that was on the verge of default and sank into a spiral of inflation.
“Right now, everyone has been affected by the economic crisis to the point that they feel they have to take to the streets,” said Shihab Afzal, 27, a doctor from Lahore (east).
“Even necessities can’t be bought,” the pro-Khan protester added.
Foreign exchange reserves are only $4.4 billion, barely enough to cover imports for 3 weeks. Likewise, crucial negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on financial aid since November have stalled.
In April, food prices increased by about 50 percent compared to the previous year, according to official figures.
“The feeling of economic instability is the fuel of Imran Khan’s anti-government movement,” says analyst Musharraf Zaidi. “When you are struggling to feed your children, it is a great incentive to increase your support.”
Most Pakistanis feel these hardships, especially since they struggle even to buy food or fuel.
Total calm prevails in the market area “G9” in Islamabad, which is usually crowded.
“The whole market is very quiet,” says Abdul Rahman (63 years old), who runs a drinks kiosk. “I have never seen her in such a bad condition,” he adds.
Inflation began to rise in 2021, driven in part by the $10 billion post-Covid stimulus package Khan launched while he was in power.
For its part, the opposition parties that pushed the former cricket star to leave justified the order by blaming him for mismanagement.
But then it also struggled to resolve a crisis exacerbated by a global recession caused by the war in Ukraine and last summer’s floods, and by a decade of low working-class wages in Pakistan.
“Frankly, if you take inflationary pressures out of the equation, the public aspect of the threat posed by Khan is likely to diminish as well,” says economist Umair Javed. He adds, “There is a general discontent that is currently being expressed through the policy of incitement.”
Islamabad is trying to obtain part of a $6.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, which will mitigate the impact of financial conditions, as the dollar shortage has slowed imports, which has hit the industrial sector hard.
In the negotiations, the IMF secured a significant cut in the popular but unfavorable long-term subsidy that helped ease the cost of living.
“Unlike in the past, major creditors are reluctant to bail out the country in exchange for geopolitical concessions,” said Uzair Younes, an expert at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.
* The system is down
With elections approaching, due in October at the latest, the current government is paying the price for decades of mismanagement and the global situation, in what Imran Khan says is the alternative.
“The regime leaves behind tens of millions of people,” said economic analyst Khurram Hussein, adding, “It is a long-term structural problem that has been present in the background for many years.” And he continues, “Then a charismatic man arrives… He tells them that the whole system is broken and that we need a new system.”
In Lahore, Adil Abbas appears to be one of the Pakistanis who believe in what Khan is offering to qualify for a second term.
“I will never see a prosperous Pakistan in my life,” says the 18-year-old salesman. “But Khan will start” to put the country on this path, he adds.
However, not everyone was convinced.
In the same market in Islamabad, Ahmed Shah, a 32-year-old dried fruit seller, is focusing all his efforts on keeping his family going. “I don’t even know how much I earn in a month,” he says. I just run my house (business), and sometimes we have more money, sometimes less.
A young woman approaches and orders a kilogram of mixed nuts. But she decides to buy half of the quantity after the price shocked her.
“We barely cover our expenses, believe me,” Shah adds.