US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan shake hands during their meeting in the White House in Washington on July 22. Photo: AFP / Michael Reynolds / Pool via CNP

A burning question for Pakistanis today is how the educated people of a country that cannot even provide three square meals a day to its children can still worship Prime Minister Imran Khan, who wastes his time engaging in witch-hunts against his political enemies.

This was the question posed to me by a young man named Shahzad, operator of a passenger-bike service in Islamabad. As I listened to the miseries of Shahzad, my own troubles melted into insignificance.

A father of two children and living in a rented house, Shahzad toils for 12 hours a day to earn 700 rupees (US$4.35). He cannot even afford to send his kids to a government school. His monthly income of around 18,000 rupees ($112) is not enough to pay his rent and utilities, feed his wife and kids and care for his sickly mother. Shahzad is not highly educated but he knows what is going on in Pakistan.

Almost a year has passed since the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) of Imran Khan won power in a general election that was widely thought to have been influenced by invisible forces. In the year since, Pakistan has suffered harsh curbs on the media and freedom of expression, victimization of political opponents and a national economy seemingly stuck in reverse gear.

Khan’s failure to deliver on the economic and governance fronts is making it ever-more difficult for the establishment to back him. The military establishment has again aligned itself with Washington and is now mediating talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistan establishment has long safeguarded its own interests by aligning with the US; now it has finally ditched the policy of ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who opted not to depend on Washington and instead create stronger ties with regional players like China, Turkey and Russia.

Imran Khan, the face of the establishment, is in power, Sharif is in jail and the nation’s whole democratic system has been discredited. The nexus of the establishment, the print and electronic media and the judicial system has paved the way for authoritarianism and de facto dictatorship. The media are urged to cover only “positive” news while the judicial system is being blatantly exploited to keep the likes of Sharif, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Asif Ali Zardari behind bars.

The PTI government led by Imran Khan is now the tool by which the military establishment rules Pakistan. The year since they were elected is thought by some observers to be Pakistan’s worst ever year of political turmoil, curbs on media and freedom of expression and victimization of dissenting voices. Now questions are being asked how a government that enjoys the backing of the US and Saudi Arabia yet has shown no sign of establishing policies to free Pakistan from political and economic turmoil can possibly take the nation forward.

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, now headed by Bilawal Bhutto, remains the most popular party in Sindh province, while the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), now led by the anti-establishment Maryam Nawaz (daughter of imprisoned Nawaz Sharif), remains the most popular party in Punjab.

Khan, formerly the captain of Pakistan’s World Cup–winning cricket team, enjoys a cult following in prosperous middle-class urban areas and in the towns where cricket is worshiped. But even with the backing of the establishment, in free and fair elections he is not capable of defeating PML-N in Punjab or PPP in Sindh. And so the establishment, through Khan, is tightening the screws on opposition political parties.

The recent arrest of journalist Irfan Siddiqi, a speechwriter for Nawaz Sharif, and the confiscation of property belonging to the former PML-N finance supremo Ishaq Dar are only parts of a new wave in the ongoing crackdown against Khan’s opponents. However, to Khan and his backers the problem remains that the right-wing religious leader Maulana Fazlur  Rehman, head of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (F) party (also known as Fazal), is holding massive anti-Khan rallies. Rehman has issued a deadline to Khan to resign from office, failing which he will lead a long march to Islamabad in October. Unlike the other political parties, Fazal enjoys a religious cult following, and is shrewdly playing the religion card against both the establishment and Khan.

Meanwhile, Maryam Nawaz is also addressing huge public rallies in her Punjab power base despite a ban imposed on media coverage of her rallies and speeches.

Despite undemocratic strictures applied by the government, the rallies of Fazal-ur-Rehman, Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal are putting it under immense pressure as the masses call for relief from economic turmoil. Working together, the opposition have presented a no-confidence motion against Senate chairman Sadiq Sanjrani. The motion stands a good chance of being passed, and if this happens and Sanjrani is ousted, this will be the first major blow to the establishment’s image of being impossible to defeat.

If Khan and his backers had more effectively managed the economic crisis and engineered a solution that did not involve going cap in hand to the US and Saudi Arabia, the nation’s situation would have been far stronger. In such circumstances, the government would not have needed to put curbs on the media or to throw political opponents in jail. As it is, the economy is in crisis and political stability is nothing more than a dream.

For many, Khan’s first year in power has been a nightmare. Analysts speculate that the establishment will continue to enjoy hegemony and democracy will be further weakened while front men like Khan remain in nominal charge. However, the prospect of democratic change is not entirely bleak. When even lower-middle-class citizens like the bike rider Shahzad start to blame the establishment for its political machinations and are heard to condemn Khan as an establishment puppet, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

As long as Punjab keeps rising with Maryam’s PML-N and her father refuses to surrender by opting to go into foreign exile, the chances are that the establishment will eventually be pushed on to the back foot. For if the economy keeps sinking and political instability prevails, no matter how powerful the establishment may be, it cannot maintain its grip on what many Pakistanis see as an undeclared coup. When that happens, Imran Khan will fall.

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