Pakistan’s political roller coaster continues

With Imran Khan in jail, Pakistan has entered a familiar cycle of multiple uncertainties

Updated - August 14, 2023 09:15 am IST

Published - August 14, 2023 12:16 am IST

‘Being Imran Khan, with no one else good enough to be anywhere close to his delusional self-assessment, has meant that his populist politics rises and falls with him and him alone’

‘Being Imran Khan, with no one else good enough to be anywhere close to his delusional self-assessment, has meant that his populist politics rises and falls with him and him alone’ | Photo Credit: AP

Now that the Pakistan Parliament has been dissolved, with former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan still the single most popular politician in the country, sentenced to a three-year jail term on corruption charges and also barred from politics for five years (both decisions have been appealed), Pakistan has entered a familiar cycle of multiple uncertainties.

Perhaps the most important one regards the question of whether elections will actually be held as mandated in 90 days. The outgoing government which comprises more than a dozen coalition partners has deliberately created this uncertainty by making contradictory and ambiguous statements. While it is in their interest to hold elections quickly so that they can reconvene as a government now that their most formidable opponent has been banned from politics (at least for now), they themselves are uncertain of their own future.

Editorial | Stifling dissent: On Imran Khan’s arrest and Pakistan’s democracy 

Despite many of these uncertainties, one thing seems to be certain: Imran Khan’s political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has been decimated and barely exists on the political horizon. Almost every single party member of clout with any standing has been politically neutered and in humiliating public statements and press conferences, has either ‘given up politics’ forever, or has abandoned their former leader and set up their own breakaway party. Mr. Khan has been left standing alone, in jail, by those party officials who swore they would live and die on their kaptaan’s command. Yet, even in his cell, infested with vermin and insects, Mr. Khan stands as the single voice arguing for basic democratic rights, showing how he has been victimised, and still supported by hundreds of thousands of followers. The irony is that despite this considerable support, his supporters may not get to vote for their leader, whenever elections are held.

Imran Khan and his politics

The problem with Mr. Khan and his politics has always been that he is Imran Khan, stating once that ‘I am democracy’. He is arrogant, over-confident, impulsive, full of hubris, self-righteous to a degree, yet charismatic, communicative and extremely popular. Being Imran Khan, with no one else good enough to be anywhere close to his delusional self-assessment, has meant that his populist politics rises and falls with him and him alone. This has created a movement with a leader of immense following, but no political party or political machine to speak of, just a handful of politicians who jump ship given half a chance, as they all have done, yet again.

Also read |Imran Khan’s arrest to help PML-N and Pak military establishment to get ‘desired results’ in upcoming polls: experts

Unlike the other two largest parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), where, despite the assassination (PPP) and incarceration and disqualification (PMLN) of their leaders both parties have survived, regrouped, and come back to power even without their charismatic and undisputed leaders, Imran Khan has failed to create a political party through the very features which make him popular — arrogance, courage, overconfidence. He is now left without a party infrastructure or politicians willing to take over command. Imran Khan is his party, the PTI; without him, there is no party.

How Mr. Khan ended up in jail is now very well known, with individuals in the military having played a very active role. He became even more powerful politically, and far more dangerous, like a raging tiger, after he was thrown out through constitutional and democratic means in April 2022. For a year he targeted the two most powerful individuals in the most powerful institution in Pakistan — its army. For a full year he gained sympathy, support and respect, not only among his own supporters but also the public, as well — by naming names, by winning votes and seats in numerous by-elections even when he and his party had resigned from Parliament and two provincial governments. He challenged the military in its heartland, the Punjab.

When the military struck back

Imran Khan’s politics was built on social formations similar to those of the military, among the urban middle classes of the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, provinces which his party ruled. And while he sang the military’s tune, the military played to and with the tune of their man in power. Yet, the tensions and contradictions between the military and Mr. Khan were inevitable, expectant, and eventually erupted. One had to go. He discredited the military while he was on television every single day, often more than once, and became the centre of focus in Pakistan and abroad even when he was captive in his Lahore house. The Army eventually cracked the whip. It put an end to his media performances and banned even the mention of his name from all media. Mr. Khan found a way out by appearing on alternative formats, on social media, continuing with his criticism of the former and current Chief of Army Staff. Eventually, he was indicted and banned, found guilty for ‘dishonesty’, ‘providing false information’ in connection with gifts that he received as Prime Minister, in a trial and manner questioned by lawyers who have argued that justice has been trampled upon and that Imran Khan has been victimised. Like the former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, also banned (for life) and jailed, most observers felt that Mr. Khan too, is facing an unfair trial and has been found guilty on frivolous charges.

Looking ahead

Yet, there are also differences. While Nawaz Sharif was jailed and banned, the electoral process continued. Now, with the end of this Parliament, there are multiple signals that the elections might be postponed till ‘at least Spring 2024’, an unconstitutional step — not that the Constitution has been followed either in letter or spirit in Pakistan. Numerous laws have passed through Parliament in its last few hours, without a quorum (usually unread by those who chose to attend), have granted powers well beyond the norm. The caretaker government expected to take over this week, has been given a much wider mandate than in the past, allowing it to take decisions that are usually allowed only to elected governments. Even more troubling has been legislation which has been passed, which gives the military legal cover and power for activities which were earlier challenged in court. While the Army has been asked to ‘oversee’ Pakistan’s economic revival, with the Army Chief himself actively involved in such ‘revival’, Parliament in its last few hours amended the Official Secrets Act 1923 allowing ‘agencies’ the power to ‘arrest suspects or search without warrants’. Perhaps Parliament, in its wisdom, merely gave such existing practices legal protection.

With the timing of the elections uncertain, one can be sure that Pakistan will eventually resume its biased and rigged process of electoral choice, with one undemocratic institution ensuring results acceptable to it, as it has in the past. The other thing that is certain is that on its Independence Day, two former Prime Ministers will display their patriotism — one from jail and the other in exile, still uncertain whether they will be allowed to contest the next elections.

S. Akbar Zaidi is a political economist based in Karachi where he currently heads the Institute of Business Administration (IBA)

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