Imran Khan has won the majority of seats — six out of the seven he contested — in Sunday’s by-polls, confirming his growing popularity. But what’s next for him?

PTI’s sweeping victory comes three months after it had managed to win 15 out of 20 provincial seats from Punjab, enabling the party to take power back from the coalition in the country’s political heartland.

In the latest elections, his party lost only two seats to PPP — in Malir and Multan — but also wrested back two of three provincial assembly seats from PML-N’s grasp.

It is small wonder, then, that his success has raised the spirits of his followers, who believe this victory will build greater pressure on the six-month-old coalition government and force them into calling early elections.

“The direction of events is very clear,” says Hasaan Khawar, the PTI deputy information secretary .

“Sunday’s vote was a ‘plus version’ of July’s by-elections for the Punjab Assembly. The July vote was ‘consequential’ since we were fighting for provincial government, but Sunday’s polls were ‘inconsequential’ because the PTI didn’t return to the National Assembly. Still, people turned out to elect Imran, which confirms that they want elections. The PML-N is the biggest loser [from the delay in elections] and the results show this.”

Editorial: Key takeaways from Sunday’s by-polls

The editor of an online newspaper also holds that Imran Khan is currently the most popular leader in Pakistan, but even he doubts Mr Khan’s ability to force the government’s hand.

“Whether or not you like his politics, ideology and ability to govern, it makes little or no difference… he has secured votes from across the country and won from most provinces, a feat that no other politician can pull off. His is also the only party that has candidates to field in most of the provinces, at the moment.”

But whether this will be enough to force early polls, remains to be seen. “Unless we see widespread unrest and disruptions, I don’t see early elections being called,” the editor notes.

Speaking at a press conference after polling day, Imran Khan asked the ‘decision-makers’ — an obvious reference to the military establishment — to hold early elections, a demand he has been making ever since his ouster.

On the same occasion, he also confirmed reports that backchannel talks with the powers that be were underway. But the refrain: “Talks, what should I say… they are happening and not happening. There’s no clarity as yet” betrays his disappointment that the establishment he is looking to for help is yet not convinced of his demand.

In the journalist’s view, the reason Mr Khan chose to contest the polls himself was to capitalise on his own popularity and use the success as a bargaining chip to convince the establishment that he is their only viable option.

“At one level, the former premier has made a joke out of the election process, since [neither ne nor] his party appear ready to return to the assembly. At another level, he’s trying to pull the military — and in certain instances the judiciary — into a political dispute.”

But he is also cognisant of the fact that the military will be wary of being sucked into such a maelstrom at a time when it is preoccupied with an internal transfer of power.

“I can’t say if it will resume its role of power broker any time soon… but it seems unlikely unless a new army chief is appointed,” he says.

The view within the party is not too different either: while some — like Mr Khawar — believe in Mr Khan’s ability to trigger an electoral exercise earlier than expected, some PTI leaders privately acknowledge that things do not look conducive to early polls.

“Frankly, Imran’s victory exerts pressure in two directions; both the government and the establishment are watching his popularity graph soar, both know that he can’t be defeated at the polls and they will have to eventually sit across the table from him,” a PTI leader from Islamabad, speaking on condition of anonymity, claims.

But is this enough to force early elections? “I don’t think so,” is the reply.

At the moment, the government is in the driving seat and not ready to throw in the towel unless the establishment intervenes. The irony here is that the establishment, too, doesn’t look to be in a position to intercede on anyone’s behalf, because they aren’t clear who their next chief will be.

“The military won’t make a move until a new chief takes over and all (generals) are on the same page,” the PTI leader from Islamabad contends.

However, Mr Khawar argues that things have already gone south for the incumbent PDM government. He insists that the government should take its cue from the trouncing it has received at Mr Khan’s hands and announce elections. “The uncertainty has already wasted one year of this nation. How long do they want to prolong it?”

The PTI leader from Islamabad also has another scenario in mind — one which is tied to the fabled ‘long march’ on Islamabad that keeps getting postponed for reasons best known to Mr Khan alone.

But he views this as “an exercise in futility”, because even if the party manages to storm the federal capital and disrupt communication channels across the country to bring the economy to a standstill for several days, “it runs the risk of enraging the establishment”, something no party can afford.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2022

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