A new survey reveals that former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is Pakistan’s most popular politician by far. The results come at a crucial moment for Khan, who is pressing for elections and faces the threat of arrest just months after a failed assassination bid.
The poll, conducted by the authoritative Gallup Pakistan in the first three weeks of February, finds that 61 percent of Pakistanis view Khan favorably, compared to just 36 percent respectively for his chief rivals, the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the current foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
Khan was removed from power last April in a vote of no confidence he says was orchestrated by the then-army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. He has also alleged U.S. involvement in his removal, which he’s termed a “regime change” operation.
Since being removed from power, Khan’s popularity has surged. Last April, just after Khan’s fall from power, a majority of Pakistanis surveyed said they were “happy” about the ex-cricketer’s ouster. But within weeks, public opinion shifted with a majority saying they were “angry” about Khan’s removal through a vote of no confidence.
Survey Results Bad News for Khan's Rivals
Khan's rivals are also experiencing a reversal of fortunes. In a previous poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan in late 2021 into early 2022, Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shehbaz, the current prime minister, were Pakistan's most popular politicians, with favorability ratings above 50 percent. By comparison, then-Prime Minister Khan fared poorly, with a favorability rating of just 36 percent.
Inflation was the primary culprit for Khan's loss of support toward the end of his premiership. Khan came to power pledging to build a "Naya Pakistan" (New Pakistan), but inherited an economic crisis and faced a steep learning curve upon taking power.
In a Gallup Pakistan poll conducted just months before his ouster, over 80 percent of Pakistanis felt the economy was the top issue, with 64 percent saying inflation. Fixing the economy was the primary reason Pakistan's then-opposition sold the idea of deposing Khan to the general public.
But economic conditions in Pakistan have only deteriorated faster under the Shehbaz Sharif government. And most Pakistanis — 62 percent — hold the current coalition government responsible for the country's economic crisis.
Economic Crisis Destroying Sharif Clan Political Brand
Pakistan is in the midst of a severe balance of payments crisis and faces the risk of default. Foreign exchange reserves at hand cover less than a month's worth of imports. Inflation has hit an all-time high and is unlikely to reach manageable levels any time soon. The Pakistani rupee has lost more than fifty percent of its value since the vote of no confidence that removed Khan from office.
As a result, the Sharif brothers' once strong favorability ratings have disappeared, with roughly 60 percent viewing the Sharif brothers and Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of Nawaz and his political heir, negatively.
The Gallup Pakistan results are extremely troubling for the Sharifs' party, the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N). The political stature of Nawaz, currently self-exiled in London, had been somewhat insulated from his brother's poor handling of the economy. But that is no longer the case. Nawaz has a net negative approval rating in Punjab, where his party is based. Simply put, the Sharif brand of politics has been tarnished, perhaps irrevocably so.
Pakistan's Uncertain Political Future
Khan's relations with the army remain poor. Meanwhile, elements of the army have a cooperative relationship with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led by former President Asif Ali Zardari and his son, the current foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. But the two men are viewed negatively by a majority of Pakistanis. Former President Zardari is Pakistan's most unpopular major politician, with 67 percent viewing him as "bad" or "very bad." That includes a 23 percent net negative in his native province of Sindh.
In Sindh, Bilawal has a 10 percent net positive rating, suggesting the party has some staying power in the province with him at its helm. But the rural region of the Sindh province is a borderline failed state. A political compact between the senior army brass and Zardari's PPP would bring that model of failed governance to Pakistan as a whole.
Some in the Pakistan Army see Bilawal as someone who can present a young, seemingly liberal face before the West, with which they would like to revitalize ties. But no Western economy has come to Pakistan's aid in the past year, despite Bilawal's many foreign trips. Good optics and symbolic meetings have no value for an economy in collapse.
Recently, Khan has held out yet another olive branch to the army. But there is no indication that trust has been regained. Khan is too popular to be controlled. And control is what the generals want. The problem for the army is that public opinion is so heavily skewed in Khan's favor that his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf, could sweep the next polls. As a result, we could see the army resort to aggressive action against Khan again or explore an alternative political setup.
Curiously, the Gallup Pakistan survey asked respondents whether they would support a new party made of "honest" politicians and "technocrats" — the type of political engineering advocated by the army from time to time. A slight majority — 53 percent — said they would support such a setup.
The responses suggest many in Pakistan — including a majority in Khan's base of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — are tiring of the country's combative politics. But the economic policy choices any government would have to make require genuine public support — something an "apolitical setup" likely cannot sustain.
The danger for Pakistan in the months ahead is that its rulers could set the house on fire just to keep Khan out of power. As economic and security conditions in the country plummet, it seems as if they already have.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.