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In a polarized Pakistan, Imran Khan accuses opponents of conspiracies

Pakistan's former prime minister Imran Khan (center) leaves after appearing before a court for a protective bail in relation to two cases, in Lahore on March 21. Khan spoke to NPR's <em>Morning Edition</em> on Thursday.
Arif Ali
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AFP via Getty Images
Pakistan's former prime minister Imran Khan (center) leaves after appearing before a court for a protective bail in relation to two cases, in Lahore on March 21. Khan spoke to NPR's Morning Edition on Thursday.

ISLAMABAD — The former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan tells NPR that he believes his opponents will try to have him killed or jailed, and predicts they will try to delay federal elections slated for this fall — elections that he believes his party would "sweep."

The government denies those claims and says they're made to whip up Khan's supporters.

Khan's statements spotlight the deep polarization in Pakistan, a country that appears to lurch from crisis to crisis. Yet analysts say this country, the world's fifth-most populous nation and one that is nuclear-armed, faces a particularly dire moment.

Soaring inflation has forced families to cut back on food, millions are near starvation and the country is on the brink of economic default as the International Monetary Fund stalls on releasing a tranche of its current bailout to the country.

Policemen fire tear gas to disperse supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan, outside a court in Islamabad on March 18.
Farooq Naeem / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Policemen fire tear gas to disperse supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan, outside a court in Islamabad on March 18.

The situation is exacerbated by a political crisis, as Khan demands elections that would almost certainly topple the unpopular ruling coalition. Khan's supporters have also clashed with Pakistani security forces in scenes analysts say are unprecedented in Pakistan's tumultuous history.

"What is happening is that the government is petrified of elections," said Khan. "They're scared that we're going to win the elections. Therefore, they're trying everything to get me out of the way, including assassination," said Khan, who survived an apparent attempt on his life in November when a gunman shot him in the leg.

Khan spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep over Zoom from his home in the Pakistani city of Lahore, which he called a fortress. "Fortress Lahore," Khan said, smiling. He said his home was attacked by police and paramilitary forces known as Rangers. "To abduct me, not arrest me," he said. "It's been exciting times here."

Khan was referring to an attempt by the police last Tuesday to arrest him after he skipped multiple court sessions of a corruption case he is embroiled in — one of the dozens of cases he is currently fighting. Khan's supporters, who maintain a constant vigil outside his residence, clashed with the police for nearly 24 hours, pelting them with stones and beating them with sticks as the forces responded with tear gas volleys. Clashes erupted again on Saturday in the Pakistani capital Islamabad as Khan sought to attend a court hearing to avert arrest.

Khan said his supporters were "extremely worried" that security forces would either "abduct or kill me. So, you know, you have these supporters all standing there, you know, camped outside my house to protect me."

Pakistan's interior minister, Rana Sanaullah, referred to those supporters as an "armed gang," and has accused Khan of spreading lies by claiming security forces were planning an attack against him.

The Pakistani defense minister, Khwaja Asif, also dismisses allegations that there was a plan to kill Khan. "The whole thing is so scandalous, this allegation," Asif said in response to a question by NPR at a press conference he held in Islamabad on Friday. He described it as a claim Khan used to whip up his supporters, whom he likened to a "cult." "This allegation of conspiring to murder him — I think this is, you know, stretching it a bit too far."

Khan referred to the court cases he is facing as an attempt by his opponents to try to tire him out, and disqualify him from running in elections. He's dismissed the charges against him, saying that "it's to get me out of the way."

Supporters of Imran Khan, Pakistan's former prime minister, shout slogans during a protest in Karachi on March 19, demanding release of arrested party workers in recent police clashes.
Rizwan Tabassum / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Supporters of Imran Khan, Pakistan's former prime minister, shout slogans during a protest in Karachi on March 19, demanding release of arrested party workers in recent police clashes.

Analysts say filing multiple charges against prominent figures is a way that the military establishment uses in particular to bring down its rivals.

But Khan insisted that would not dent his party's popularity. "It doesn't matter because the party I lead now has a popularity wave unprecedented in our history. So whether I am in jail or not, the party is going to sweep the elections anyway," he said.

Delayed elections

On Thursday, Pakistan's electoral commission announced that elections in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, would be delayed from April 30 to Oct. 8, despite a Supreme Court ruling ordering elections to take place on time. Khan said he was worried that the government would next delay federal elections, expected in October.

Analysts have said that the current coalition government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif hopes to delay elections as it tries to shore up its popularity, which has been devastated amid the country's economic crisis.

ButAsif, the defense minister, insisted they would be held on schedule. "National elections are due in October and they will be held on time," Asif said, even as he acknowledged the government's popularity had thinned out over the past year of rule.

The parties that form the current government also appear concerned that if Khan — who served as prime minister from 2018 till last year — becomes prime minister again, he will resume his crackdown against his opponents.

Khan tells NPR he will pursue corruption cases, particularly against the two political dynasties that have dominated Pakistan's civilian governments over the past few decades — the Bhuttos and the Sharifs. His supporters widely see both families as corrupt.

"It's not the severity of the laws — it is the certainty of punishment that stops crime in Pakistan. The powerful have always got away with stealing money from the country because they are above law," Khan said. "So I'll fight in Pakistan to bring the powerful elite under the law. This is the fight. The moment we do that, we provide a level playing field for our people, you know, to excel."

In his press conference, Asif said there was a glaring contradiction in Khan's insistence on the rule of law: The former prime minister has repeatedly skipped court appearances, and his supporters routinely clashed with security forces.

Khan's critics say his constant attacks on his political rivals are partly to blame for Pakistan's deep polarization today. While Khan was in power, he was not able to successfully prosecute cases against his rivals. His critics say this was because there was not enough proof, while Khan insists the former army chief helped them avert prosecution.

Moreover, the perception of corruption in Pakistan actually worsened during Khan's rule. The anti-corruption aid group Transparency International said in its 2022 report that Pakistan was rated at 140 – under the previous government, it had ranked at 124, with 180 being the most corrupt.

A fraught relationship with Pakistan's military

Khan's relationship with the military — once considered extremely close — soured as he was ousted from power in April last year after a no-confidence vote against his rule. It came after the military, Pakistan's most powerful institution, indicated it would no longer support Khan.

Khan first blamed Washington for his ouster, but more recently, he has offered a more complicated narrative in which he claims the former army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, orchestrated a campaign to turn Washington against him.

Asif, the defense minister, described these claims as "completely irrational."

Khan said the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. "must encompass two things — dignity and respect."

"Unfortunately, the Pakistan-U.S. relationship has always been lopsided, mainly because we keep asking for money," Khan said. So the U.S., he said, treats Pakistan like "people who beg for money."

The current coalition government is struggling to convince the IMF to resume a bailout to shore up the country's depleting foreign reserves. That bailout, in all cases, is expected to expire by the summer. Economists have expressed doubt that the institution would agree to another bailout with elections looming.

Khan said bringing on fair elections would "bring political stability because a government would come in with a mandate for five years," he said, "to have sweeping reforms."

Inskeep interviewed Imran Khan from Washington, D.C.; Hadid reported from Islamabad. Ally Schweitzer edited the audio interview with Khan and Majd Al-Waheidi produced it for the web. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.