Lahore, Pakistan – Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan has won a major political victory after the country’s Supreme Court ordered the government to hold snap polls in the politically crucial Punjab province on May 14.
Khan, who was removed from power in April last year after losing a confidence vote in parliament, says he is confident of victory for his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in forthcoming provincial as well as national elections, due by October this year.
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In an interview with Al Jazeera at his Zaman Park home in Punjab’s capital, Lahore, Khan discusses his plans in an election year as he also looks back at the tumultuous 12 months gone by.
Al Jazeera: In January, your party dissolved the provincial assemblies of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which it controlled. What is your plan of action in case the government continues to delay elections in the provinces?
Imran Khan: When I dissolved my two assemblies, we got the top lawyers. We looked at the constitution. Every lawyer in Pakistan said the moment you dissolve your assemblies, elections have to be held within 90 days. This is unambiguous, there is just no doubt about this thing. So the moment you get out of 90 days, you are in violation of the constitution. And once you get out of 90 days, who decides when will elections happen? So if the government says elections in October, why not in December, why not next year?
When General Zia ul-Haq [former military ruler of Pakistan from 1977-1988] came into power, he said, “I will hold elections in 90 days.” But the moment he got away, we lost 11 years. So, if the government does not accept the Supreme Court verdict, it means they are now violating the constitution. In that case, the Supreme Court could slap contempt [charges] on them. And let me assure everyone that all the people of Pakistan would be standing with the Supreme Court. I think it won’t be just the PTI. You will have the lawyers’ community, all the legal community, they will be standing on one side.
The constitution leaves no doubt that elections have to be held in 90 days. Therefore, it will be very difficult to defend anyone who then thinks that the elections can be delayed. The government is petrified of losing the elections because all opinion polls show they are going to be decimated. Therefore, they are just running scared of the election and they are willing to even violate the constitution.
Al Jazeera: You have been demanding early elections and all signs point towards your party’s ascendancy. Will you accept the election results if they don’t give you an outright majority? Do you expect free and fair elections?
Khan: I have not said that I will not accept the election result if we don’t get a two-thirds majority. All I have said is that if you look at the opinion polls, you look at the by-election results, despite total support by the “establishment” [a euphemism for Pakistan’s military] and the Election Commission of Pakistan, the [ruling] 12-party coalition has won only seven out of 37 bypolls. This reflects that the PTI is going to sweep the elections and hence, the government is scared of elections and running away.
The election commission is totally controlled by the government … The election commissioner had no constitutional right to prolong the elections. They could not have announced elections in October. This is a violation of the constitution. In fact, the Election Commission should be held in contempt because the constitution is clear. Their job was to hold the elections as required in the constitution. They couldn’t have given a date in October. So, my point is that we will see what happens in the elections. I can’t say whether we will accept the result or not, because I don’t know what will happen in the elections and how the Election Commission and the establishment will behave.
Al Jazeera: Are you willing to talk to your political opponents and the so-called “establishment” to resolve the political crisis in the country?
Khan: We have always said that one thing we are willing to talk about is elections. We are willing to talk about the modalities, the day, everything about [the] election, of course. But then what else is there to talk about? I mean, right now, the only issue in Pakistan is that of elections. As for the establishment, I have had two meetings with General [Qamar Javed] Bajwa after I was out of government; both times, I wanted to work out how to hold elections. What I didn’t realise was that he wanted an election provided he gets an extension [in his tenure]. So that was the only conversation with him. Since then, there has been nothing – we have had no conversation with this establishment.
[General Qamar Javed Bajwa was the army chief from November 2016 till November 2022. He was granted an extension in August 2019 by Khan during his premiership. After his retirement, Bajwa was replaced by General Asim Munir in November 2022]
Al Jazeera: It will soon be a year since your government was removed. What is the most important lesson you have learned in the past 12 months?
Khan: There is a lesson which I have learned and there is a lesson which the people of Pakistan have learnt. My lesson is that I trusted the army chief and I always thought we were on one page except on the accountability issue. But he [Bajwa] was on a completely different tangent. He didn’t believe in accountability. He didn’t believe corruption was a bad thing, as opposed to me, who believed in the rule of law and that because you don’t have rule of law, you have corruption.
Later, on foreign policy, he completely changed for some reason. The foreign office and we had, through consensus, developed a foreign policy, an independent foreign policy, [compared with] what we had before, where we were sacrificing our own people for other country’s foreign policy goals. But he came up with his own foreign policy. He condemned Russia [over the war in Ukraine] when we shouldn’t have and should have stayed neutral.
The people of Pakistan have completely changed since my government was deposed because you know, for the first time, people have stood with a government that has been removed. Normally when governments are removed, people celebrate and sweets are distributed.
Al Jazeera: You have talked about the military’s oversized role in Pakistan’s politics. Do you plan on restructuring the civil-military relationship if elected back to power?
Khan: Pakistan has to change. Right now, Pakistan is stuck in the worst economic crisis in our history. If we are to get out of this crisis, Pakistan has to completely restructure, our governance system has to change completely. We have to have rule of law in this country, to create an enabling environment to attract investment because we hardly have any investment coming in.
The current civil and military imbalance has to change if you want Pakistan to get out of this mess. And by that, I mean a system based on the rule of law. You cannot have a system where the prime minister has the responsibility but he does not have the authority to implement his policies because that authority is shared with the military.
There is no doubt that there is a role for the military. You cannot wish away the role of the military in Pakistan because it is entrenched for 70 years. But you need that balance. If you do not have that balance, you cannot have that governance system [which] is needed now for Pakistan’s survival. So, the point is we must completely reform our governance system and base it on the rule of law. You can come up with the best economic [policies] but in this environment, no economic policy is going to work.
Al Jazeera: In a speech last month you spoke about reforms for the country. Can you be more specific and share what you would have done differently if you were still in power?
Khan: The only thing different would have been to impose the rule of law. Look, I have seen countries. I have spent a lot of time in England as a professional cricketer and I [also] went to a university there. The big difference in countries that are prosperous and the ones that have high levels of poverty is only one: rule of law. The economy is completely connected with rule of law, which then gives the enabling environment for investment.
Pakistan is very fortunate that it has a huge number of overseas Pakistanis who are earning in dollars. At the moment, all we rely on are remittances. We cannot attract investment. Why can’t we attract investment? Because they do not have confidence in our judicial system and the rule of law. So, if they don’t have confidence, they will go and invest in Dubai, in Malaysia, anywhere else. But not here.
And this is our biggest handicap because what is the problem of Pakistan? It is our current account deficit. Our problem is that we have more dollars going out than coming in now. The question is, how can we attract dollars in Pakistan? The number one way, of course, is through exports. But if we have power from day one, it is going to take time before we get the industry going.
In the long run, without exports, you cannot expect to raise your standard of living. All the countries that have forged ahead of us, these Asian tigers, China, even India, all of them have done so on the back of exports. Now, exports will take time. What is it in the short run that you can do to attract dollars coming in? It is to get overseas Pakistanis’ investment in Pakistan. That will only happen if they have confidence in your justice system, rule of law, contract enforcement, so hence it is completely connected.
Denmark is number one out of 140 countries in the rule of law index. Pakistan is ranked 129. Denmark’s per capita income is $68,600 whereas Pakistan’s is $1,600. So the two are connected. But people here don’t realise this. This was my problem with General Bajwa too, who just didn’t think corruption was that big a deal. In China, which is the fastest growing economy in the world, they have held over 450 ministers accountable on corruption cases because, clearly, they realise that if you do not clamp down on high-level corruption, your economy can’t move.
Al Jazeera: What are your views on Pakistan’s foreign policy challenges considering the regional upheavals? What do you think about balancing ties between China and the US, while Pakistan is also faced with hostility on both its eastern and western borders?
Khan: The number one thing about foreign policy is that it has to be for the benefit of your own population. Every nation makes its foreign policy in the interest of its people. So that is the beginning. Now, what is in the interest of Pakistani people? To have a foreign policy where we get out of any conflict, like an Afghan “jihad”, like the so-called “war on terror”. I mean, these conflicts cost us a lot. We suffered especially during the “war on terror” in which 80,000 Pakistanis died. We had a loss of over $100bn to our economy because, who wants to invest in a country which is considered the most dangerous in the world, where terrorist attacks are going on?
So, number one, we learnt that one thing that we do not want to get involved in is other people’s conflict. Secondly, why should we exclude ourselves like in the Cold War, when we became part of the US bloc but that meant that Russia and Central Asian countries, which would be great trading partners for Pakistan, even Afghanistan, all of them became out of reach for us.
So why not have a foreign policy like India? India has a very mature foreign policy. It is trading with the US, it is trading with China. It is getting cheap oil from Russia. So India’s foreign policy benefits its people. It has managed to keep inflation down because it got oil from Russia at a discounted price. We, on the other hand, negotiated a discounted price but our government went and the new government came and they just didn’t pay any attention to it as a result. We had to pay high oil prices which led to high inflation and which led to poverty.
My point is, we should have a good relationship with all the countries. We should not become part of any blocs. As for relations with India, the only problem with India is Kashmir. Ever since India took away the statehood of Kashmir [in August 2019], how do you normalise a relationship with a country that has violated international law? It is a disputed territory between Pakistan and India. Then the huge number of sacrifices the people of Kashmir have given … when India takes away their statehood and you then start having a normal relationship with India, that means you have abandoned the struggle of the people of Kashmir.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.