Imran Khan discusses Pakistan's economic crisis and his call for early elections From his home in Lahore, Khan told NPR's Steve Inskeep why he's calling for early elections, as well as why he rejects his removal from power in April via a vote of no confidence.

Recovering from bullet wounds, Pakistan's Imran Khan talks of new waves of protest

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A former prime minister of Pakistan wants back into power. Imran Khan is a populist leader who was voted out of office. And his rejection of that defeat has put pressure on a fragile democracy. When we talked with Imran Khan this week, he referred to an earlier chapter of his celebrity life. He was once a star cricket player and says he showed his attitude then toward fairness.


IMRAN KHAN: Look, Steve. Just for your information, in 200 years of cricket history, I am the captain that brought in neutral umpires. Until then, teams used to have their home umpires, and there was a lot of acrimony. When teams would lose, they would talk about cheating.

INSKEEP: Fairness and cheating are at the heart of Khan's story now. During his years in power, he attacked the media and accused the United States of plotting against him. And then Pakistan's parliament removed him in a no-confidence vote. Khan claimed the vote against him was corrupt, and he has staged months of protests on the roads leading to the capital. While leading one protest this month, he was standing on the back of a truck when someone opened fire.


INSKEEP: And the former prime minister suffered leg wounds. The government condemned the attack and took a suspect into custody. But Khan has added the assassination attempt to his claims against the government and as protests continue.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: There is a lot to Khan's story. So to prepare for our talk with him, we first called Mosharraf Zaidi. He's an analyst in the capital, Islamabad.

MOSHARRAF ZAIDI: Imran Khan is like the Michael Jordan mixed with the Betty Ford mixed with Donald Trump, mixed with the - actually, an element of Bill Clinton.

INSKEEP: His cricket career made him a national hero in one of the world's most populous nations and brought his country the ultimate prize in 1992.


UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: Pakistan win the World Cup. Imran Khan is waiting aside. To victory. What a great victory.

INSKEEP: Later, he launched a political career and opposed a military ruler, as he told us in 2007.


KHAN: Every election since 1970 has been manipulated by the military establishment. And this time...

INSKEEP: The military eventually stepped back as elections resumed. But it remains a power in politics. Analyst Mosharraf Zaidi says that when Imran Khan's party, the PTI, finally won a parliamentary majority, he had to reach an accommodation with that power.

ZAIDI: Without the military leaning on the election process itself, the election of 2018, there's no way Imran Khan would have been prime minister.

INSKEEP: Is that equally true of his removal?

ZAIDI: One hundred percent. And to be fair, that's equally true of the great political leaders in the country that have come before him, all with one glorious exception. That's the former prime minister who was assassinated in 2007. Her name was Benazir Bhutto. Other than Benazir Bhutto, every popularly elected prime minister in the country has found favor with the bosses of the military and has eventually run afoul of those bosses. That's exactly what's happened with Imran Khan, as well.


DIAA HADID: So Imran Khan, the former prime minister now, was ousted with 174 votes in parliament on early Sunday morning, somewhere around 2 a.m.

INSKEEP: Khan lost support as he battled against the military, and the economy faded. When he protested his ouster, the new government accused him of terrorism. They've had to fight with Khan while also facing a season of overwhelming floods. On this program in September, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari accused Khan of spreading conspiracy theories.


BILAWAL BHUTTO ZARDARI: This young democracy is also being challenged by a post-fact, alternate reality politics in a highly partisan political environment.

INSKEEP: Then came the shooting. And this week, Khan came on the line to tell us his story.

KHAN: Hello, Steve.

INSKEEP: Prime minister, it's good to talk with you again. Hello. Thank you for taking the time.

KHAN: Ex-, yes.

INSKEEP: Ex-prime minister, Of course. Thank you.

He was at his home in Lahore. He was still recovering from the leg wounds he suffered as he rode in the truck on November 3.

KHAN: I had three bullets in my right leg, and there were two shooters. But one of the people in the procession - when he saw him pull a gun out, he put his hand on the gun. So the pistol, rather than hitting me in the chest, it went and hit my legs. I must say, I'm lucky to be alive.

INSKEEP: Khan publicly linked the shooting to three current officials who deny it. For evidence, he mainly cites his own connections in Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which is part of the military. He calls for an independent investigation. He also alleges his political rivals were paid off to oppose him.

KHAN: If we do not stand up to this injustice, I'm afraid that's how a country becomes a banana republic. Hence, it's a fight for rule of law.

INSKEEP: What's undeniable is that both military and civilian opponents turned against him. Two long-standing political parties are now governing in his place. Elections are expected by the latter part of next year. but Khan has been demanding them sooner. Though the economy suffered during his tenure, he says he can make it better.

KHAN: The economy is sinking. The dollar earnings through remittances and exports - they're all going down. So basically, Pakistan is staring at default. Economy has tanked. And the sooner we get elections, a stable government comes in. That will lead to political stability, which will then, you know, have a chance for Pakistan to get out of this mess.

INSKEEP: I understand the long-term problem with corruption in Pakistan, but a majority of the parliament who were elected to those positions and some of whom were your allies voted no confidence. Why not accept that as the constitutional result? It is the system you have.

KHAN: The problem, Steve, is that in Pakistan, unfortunately, parliamentary democracy is still evolving. So when you have a situation which is unheard of in maybe the Anglo-Saxon parliamentary democracies where you can actually buy the loyalties of of people - and I'm talking about 24 members of Parliament were sold. They sold themselves, and others were offered who refused. So that in itself means that the whole idea of democracy gets flawed.

INSKEEP: If you'll forgive me, though, these were not - were these not people who were your allies who were alleged to have been nudged in your direction once upon a time?

KHAN: No, no. Two different things. One, they were allies, but they also sold themselves. So we could have entered the auction and actually offered much more money to other people to buy on our side. But we decided on principle that this is not what we're going to do.

INSKEEP: You mentioned the need for stability. Is it in the best interest of the country at this time to turn the focus on your cause and your protest, rather than focusing on the more immediate problems of the country and running in next year's election?

KHAN: Well, Steve, if we wait till next year's election, our party is only getting stronger. As the government weakens, we are gaining aid from lack of economic performance. But the country is sinking. My only worry is that the one year which has left, the country might just be pushed to the point where it might go out of all our controls. I mean, it'd be impossible to pull it back.

INSKEEP: Should he ever return to power, Imran Khan would again have to deal with the country's generals.

It is clear, though, that at one time, the military at least consented to you as prime minister. And now you feel that they are involved in a plot to kill you. How did your relationship with them go sour?

KHAN: Well, Steve, look. The military is not something which all acts on, you know - they make a decision, the whole military acts. I'm specifically talking about this man who's in the intelligence agency. Whether the whole military had anything to do with it I don't know. But I know that the ISI is under the prime minister because it was under me when I was the prime minister.

INSKEEP: Do you feel then that you do not have bad relations with the entire military or the military leadership at this point?

KHAN: Look. Well, Steve, let me for a start say that, look - the military in Pakistan is a reality. We became a security state 75 years ago or 74 years ago when we had a conflict with India. Still, the military was pretty predominant in our affairs. And that has to be for a while. But unfortunately, the situation in Pakistan right now is the only institution that is - that works, that is strong is the military. You know, it's the one institution that can actually - if the government works for them, you can bring them under the rule of law. The problem right now is that there is an imbalance. And that balance has to be there, because if a civilian government gets the responsibility of the vote from the people to run, it must also have the authority. And that balance is what needs to be reset.

INSKEEP: Do you believe you would be able to work with the military if you returned to power, given that you have accused at least one member of the military of plotting to kill you?

KHAN: Well, you know, the military has its own good and bad. I mean, just like my political party would have its - you know, the bad eggs in it, members in the military do make mistakes.

INSKEEP: Imran Khan also seemed ready to deal with another perceived power in Pakistan, the United States. During his final days in office, he accused a U.S. State Department official of plotting against him. But he insists that if returned to power, he would be realistic.

KHAN: Is it because my government has gone that I should harbor a grudge with the U.S. forever? No because it's not about me. It's about my country. So that - in that sense, I mean, it's all behind. So, you know, we have to move forward, and we have to have a new type of relationship with the U.S., which I've always said. Unfortunately, our relationships in the past have been very lopsided. They've really been a sort of master-slave type relationship, which has been very demeaning, humiliating for people of Pakistan.

INSKEEP: On one point, Imran Khan and his critics agree - the country is in trouble. The floodwaters from the summer have receded but left behind devastation. Pakistan is seeking extra bailout money from the International Monetary Fund. Mosharraf Zaidi, the analyst who helped us put Khan's story in perspective, says this is a young country. The median age is 23. And many young people see no way forward.

ZAIDI: Many of the young Pakistanis find hope and find inspiration in the way that Khan frames their place in the world and their future. And a lot of people like me, who are very much against the kind of dangerous populism that Khan represents, are left having to defend an overarching non-Imran Khan system and set of actors that are not very inspiring at all.

INSKEEP: In the next few days, Imran Khan is expected to announce his next moves. His shooting briefly stopped the protests converging on the capital, but they have since resumed. He also talks of marching to the headquarters city of the Army, which is still seen as the ultimate power, no matter what governments rise and fall.


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