Has Imran Khan overplayed his hand in fomenting Pakistan unrest?

Cricket star-turned politician Imran Khan risks alienating his base of young, urban voters, who are increasingly disillusioned with his role in the protests rocking Islamabad.

B.K. Bangash/AP
Pakistan's former cricket celebrity Imran Khan addresses his supporters in Islamabad, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014. Anti-government protesters and Pakistani police have clashed once again as the demonstrators pushed into a sprawling government complex in the country's capital in an effort to try to reach the prime minister's official residence.

Imran Khan's charismatic style of leadership, and his hero-status as the captain of Pakistan's only World Cup-winning cricket team, has attracted mass support from urban and youth voters. 

But Mr. Khan's decision to press forward with a nearly three-week long protest is beginning to alarm his middle-class supporters. They say his campaign for the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif shows a dangerous disregard for democracy – and is distracting from Pakistan's pressing economic and energy crises. 

As the political stalemate drags on – negotiators met today with government officials for the third time in the past week without any breakthrough – there are signs that Khan's support is starting to crack. On Tuesday, the president of Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party resigned, alleging that the party was taking directions from Pakistan's Army. The number of supporters at Khan's protests are dwindling. 

Khan alleges that Sharif won last year's election due to massive voter fraud. He has partnered with cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri to lead protests until Sharif resigns, which he refuses to do. At an ongoing emergency sessions, all parties in parliament except Khan's have pledged their allegiance to Sharif.

Many Khan voters are "now having second thoughts about supporting Imran Khan," says Ahmad Bilal Mehbood, president of PILDAT, an Islamabad think-tank focused on strengthening democracy. "His emphasis on agitation alone has disillusioned his supporters." 

'Unmasked as power hungry'

One of those disillusioned voters is Gauher Aftab, a teacher based in Lahore. He voted for the first time in last year's election and picked Khan because he was inspired by his promises of change. But he's says the protests have undercut the platform he campaigned on.

“I will never vote for Khan’s party again, now that they have been unmasked as an Army-run, power-hungry party,” he says. 

Saleem Qureshi, who runs a private equity fund in Karachi, Pakistan's most populous city, initially supported Khan because he promised a progressive Pakistan, based on anticorruption policies. Now he says Khan's actions have "incited people to violence and crime in the last three weeks."  

“He called for civil disobedience, then asked his supporters to attack the parliament building... all this has made me rethink my choice for voting for his party,” he says.

Khan’s party received the second-highest number of votes in last year’s elections. It runs the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Afghanistan. Outside of the province, the majority of PTI votes were garnered in cities like Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad.

Protest holdouts 

Some 4,000-5,000 ardent supporters of Khan are still camped out at a protest site outside Islamabad's main government buildings. But even among the diehards on the streets, the mood is starting to sour.

Some Khan supporters are upset at the degree to which he is coordinating with Tahir-ul-Qadri, a dual Pakistan-Canadian citizen and Sufi cleric who led his own separate march into Islamabad that coincided with Khan’s. These supporters complain that Qadri is making too many of the decisions.

Over the weekend, responding to Tahir-ul-Qadri's call, Khan called on his protestors to attack the parliament building. A few thousand protestors clashed with police, leaving at least three people dead and hundreds of protestors and policemen injured.

“The turn of events is quite depressing, especially after the party president walked off on Imran Khan,” says Sardar Haris, a student from Abbottabad camped by the parliament building.

However, Mr. Haris says he will not leave until the prime minister resigns, or "if Imran Khan calls the protest off."

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