Imran Khan Imran Khan. Photo: Jolanda Flubacher / / World Economic Forum / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, license linked below article

The former Prime Minister has discovered that neutrality regarding Ukraine is not acceptable to the US, writes Sean Ledwith

Earlier this week, Imran Khan was voted out of office in Islamabad and replaced by Shahbaz Sharif as PM from the rival Pakistan Muslim League. Imran and his Pakistan Movement for Social Justice (PTI) had come to power four years ago with a pledge to clean out the political chicanery and corruption that has been endemic in the country since independence in 1947.

Inevitably, Imran discovered this was easier said than done and has been culpable himself of trying to rig the system to save his own skin. The previous week, Imran had plotted with the PTI deputy speaker in the National Assembly to thwart a confidence vote. He also tried to use the President, another ally, to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections.


Imran has already been discredited by the activities of his wife who engineered the appointment of Usman Buzdar as Chief Minister in the crucial Punjab province. Veteran leftist commentator, Tariq Ali, describes the latter as “a man that even the most charitable observer would describe as a dim-witted and low-grade politician. There are also suggestions Imran was planning to fire the current army Chief of Staff and replace him with a person more willing to enforce a state of emergency. The Supreme Court declared these manoeuvres to be unconstitutional, triggering the vote and Imran’s defeat by 174 votes in the 342-seat National Assembly. 100 PTI MPs have followed Imran out of the parliament, declaring that they will not recognise the new PM.

All in the family

Imran’s successor as Prime Minister represents a reversion to the cynical nepotism that blights Pakistani politics. Shahbaz is the younger brother of former PM Nawaz Sharif who served three terms in the job. Nawaz fled the country in 2017 after been indicted by the Supreme Court for his extensive use of bribery as revealed in the Panama Papers! The new PM’s son, Hamza, is depressingly lined up to take over as Chief Minister in the Punjab.

Imran’s election in 2018 had been hyped by its supporters as marking a break with the tiresome dynastic merry-go-round of Pakistan politics that has seen the Bhutto-led clan of the People’s Party and the Sharif-led Muslim League carve up power and influence between them. Imran rose to power on the back of his exploits as Pakistan cricket captain, especially winning the World Cup in 1992. His downfall is just the latest instalment of corrupt factionalism at the top of a political system that, incredibly, means not a single PM has served out a full five-year term. The downtrodden farmers and workers of the world’s sixth most populous state have been ruthlessly exploited by all politicians, including Imran, over the course of 75 years of independence.

Regional crisis

Last year the Wealth Inequality Database indicated the top 1 percent of Pakistanis control over a quarter of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 50 percent own just over 5%. The bulk of the 220 million population has also been ground down by savage austerity and a sequence of cuts to public sector provision ordered by the IMF as the price of a $6 billion loan. The inflation rate has edged over 15%, prompting the central bank to push interest rates up to 12%. Foreign currency reserves have flooded out of the country over recent months, down from $20 billion to now just $11 billion. If all that wasn’t bad enough, Covid has claimed almost a million Pakistani victims since it struck in 2020. The crisis in the country mirrors that of nearby Sri Lanka in which a convergence of global and local factors have disrupted the status quo.

Alarm bells

None of the above would have concerned the Biden administration too much but Imran’s critical stance on US foreign policy in recent months will have stretched Washington’s patience to breaking point. Last year, he denounced the shambolic US exit from Afghanistan and then Pakistan sent high-level dignitaries to the Beijing Winter Olympics in defiance of a US-led boycott. Imran also negotiated a $60 billion deal with China for economic assistance that would have set off alarm bells in Washington. Biden has noticeably not had a single conversation with Imran since entering the White House last year.

Most infuriating in the eyes of Washington was Imran’s presence in Moscow with Putin on the very day in February when Russian forces poured into Ukraine. During the visit the Pakistan PM explicitly stated: “What we want to do is not become part of any bloc.”

Imran also approved Pakistan’s abstention – along with many states in the Global South – on the subsequent vote in the UN condemning the invasion. The former PM spoke out against the machinations of the US on the eve of his departure from office. Although there is no direct evidence for US intervention, it is not difficult to see why Washington would have sent discreet signals to the military and political establishment in Pakistan that now would be a good time for a new PM.  

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters