Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chairman Imran Khan is an increasingly isolated figure in Pakistani politics. The launch of a military-backed crackdown in the wake of violent nationwide protests on May 9, 2023 has made sure of that. With party leaders and ticket-holders deserting his party in droves, an unannounced ban on the broadcast of his speeches on television, and increasingly tangled up in the web of legal charges and hearings against him, he’s a far cry from the combative figure that seemed to be almost untouchable until just over a month ago.
The May 9 ‘protests’ saw hundreds of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) workers vandalise several state buildings, including military properties, martyrs’ monuments and sites such as the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi and the corps commander’s residence in Lahore. The protests had been triggered by Khan’s arrest by paramilitary forces, days after he had accused senior intelligence officers of conspiring to assassinate him. The government says these were not spontaneous protests but rather had been planned, with targets specifically chosen ahead of time.
Given the crackdown on those involved in the arson and vandalisation, TV programmes and news bulletins now often shy away from even mentioning the former prime minister by name. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leaders such as defence minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif have repeatedly hinted at the possibility of Khan’s lifelong disqualification from politics and some have even mooted the banning of PTI itself. And, despite the reservations of civil rights groups, some of the most egregious violators of the law are being tried in military courts. It is being hinted that Khan himself may also face the same fate.
The army leadership has pledged to punish all those involved in the attacks on its sites, as well as vowed to “tighten the noose” around the “masterminds and planners” of the May 9 events, dubbing it a “black day” in the nation’s history. In a recent interview, Khan who is facing more than 100 cases of corruption, fraud and even assassination since his ouster from power through a parliamentary vote, told Bloomberg News that the military was looking to crush his party to prevent him from leading it to victory in the general elections that could be held by October this year.
To many, Khan seems increasingly out of touch with the ground realities. His hardcore supporters continue to hang on his every word, though most of the active ones seem to be expatriates, now limited to expressing opinions only on social media.
The rapidity of the disintegration of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf after the events of May 9 has surprised even its long-term critics. Was the party really always the house of cards it has turned out to be? What does that tell us about its rise? And where does the situation leave Imran Khan’s future?
But the seeming swift disintegration of Khan’s support and party structures has surprised even his critics. After all, other parties — from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the late 1970s and 1980s, the Muttaheda Qaumi Movement (MQM) in the 1990s and after 2016, the PML-N after 1999 and in 2018 — have seen harsher crackdowns in the past. Yet no one ever doubted their ability to rise once again from the ashes. Could this really be the end for the PTI?
THE GREAT EXODUS
Although defections are a part and parcel of the country’s electoral politics, the scale of the ‘exodus’ of the party leadership from PTI has been nothing short of spectacular. Khan’s old and new allies such as former party Secretary General Asad Umar, former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister Pervez Khattak, former human rights minister Shireen Mazari, former information minister Fawad Chaudhry, former Sindh president Ali Zaidi, former Sindh governor Imran Ismail and scores of other top leaders have deserted the party during its difficult times.
Although the frequency of defections has slowed down in recent days, not a day passes by without a new face leaving PTI, after denouncing the May 9 attacks. Others, such as newly made party president Chaudhry Parvez Elahi and former commerce minister Hammad Azhar who haven’t defected so far, are either behind bars or in hiding to avoid arrests. Senior vice president Shah Mahmood Qureshi was released from jail only recently, almost a month after his arrest, only to widespread speculation that he too might have struck a deal.
What is clear is that the work on winding down ‘Project Imran’ has been set in motion. ‘Project Imran’ is how many of Khan’s critics characterise his political rise over the past decade, holding the previous military leadership squarely responsible for paving the way for it, to undercut the country’s old mainstream parties.
Many analysts argue that Khan’s ‘moment of truth’ has finally arrived, with questions being raised about his and his party’s future in Pakistan’s politics. But are the fears of a permanent demise of PTI exaggerated? This isn’t the first time that PTI has seen defections. A number of its National Assembly and Punjab Assembly members had left PTI before the vote of no confidence in April 2022. The party had still recovered from the losses and won back most of the seats in the by-polls held in Punjab and elsewhere in July and October.
But it’s also a fact that, this time, the remaining party leadership and analysts are under no doubts about who is behind this strategy to wrap up PTI as quickly as possible. Khan’s relations with the military establishment, which nurtured his party and brought him to power in 2018, have soured. The likelihood of the former cricketer being allowed to lead whatever is left of PTI in the elections look quite slim.
“The aim of the ongoing anti-PTI crackdown is to dismantle [Khan’s] support structure before putting him in jail,” argues Sarwar Bari, a political analyst and national coordinator of Pattan, a non-profit organisation based in southern Punjab. “It is part of the establishment’s old playbook. There’s no surprise in it and it is something that the military does whenever it feels the need to tame a political party or a politician getting too big for its shoes.”
Many analysts argue that Khan’s ‘moment of truth’ has finally arrived, with questions being raised about his and his party’s future in Pakistan’s politics. But are the fears of a permanent demise of PTI exaggerated? This isn’t the first time that PTI has seen defections. A number of its National Assembly and Punjab Assembly members had left PTI before the vote of no confidence in April 2022
Mohammad Badar Alam, a journalist and analyst based in Lahore, has a similar take, stating, “Obviously, it’s political engineering by the not-so-hidden hands that is leading to PTI’s organisational collapse. It’s being done through three different ways. Firstly, PTI’s several core leaders are being pressured through arrests and trials to leave the party. Secondly, they are being offered a political safe haven in the king’s party set up through the good offices of Jahangir Khan Tareen. And, thirdly, they’re being tempted by promises to give them some kind of a role in the next government.”
What are the chances of this political engineering dismantling PTI for good? In response to Dawn’s queries on this subject earlier this month, Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Centre in Washington, had pointed out that the military has had varying degrees of success with its political engineering.
“The Muttahida Qaumi Movement [MQM] has become a shadow of its former self, but the two big established dynastic parties, the PPP and PML-N, have held their own, even with the splits in the PML-N in recent years,” he pointed out. “Ultimately, the degree of success depends on how malleable the key politicians are, and how harsh the military tactics are to get them to bend.”
THE ROOTS OF PTI’S COLLAPSE
However, as Alam underlines, the reasons why the party has crumbled so quickly are much deeper than the carrots and sticks being wielded by the state institutions to make its senior leaders desert PTI.
That reason is, in fact, rooted in the way PTI itself came into being, as a result of two successive rounds of political engineering by the establishment. That engineering started in 2011, when Khan was facilitated in doing massive public rallies across Pakistan, which ended his years in the political wilderness, and continued till the general elections in 2018.
The urban middle class was mobilised and politicised during the lawyers’ movement in 2007-2009 and was excited by the success of this movement in restoring the sacked chief justice. This galvanisation gave the party the new voters it badly needed.
The party’s ideological impetus was provided by the powerful anti-American sentiment prevailing in the country in 2011-2012 due to the raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama Bin Laden, the killing of two Lahori young men by Raymond Davis, an alleged CIA operative, and an American attack on a Pakistani check post at the Pak-Afghan border that killed scores of Pakistani soldiers. It was a hardly concealed secret that it was the military establishment that sent many prominent political leaders and ‘electables’ into PTI’s fold, especially before the 2018 elections.
Alam argues, “Now that PTI’s urban middle class supporters are on the defensive after the May 9 attacks on military buildings and sites, and the party’s ideological vigour has lost its strength and sheen due to its not-so-successful stint in the government and countless changes in its political stance, the process of political engineering is now being deployed to force or tempt away those political leaders and electables who were earlier sent to PTI. This explains why it is crumbling faster than anticipated.”
Azeema Cheema, the director of research and strategy at Verso Consulting in Islamabad, has a slightly different take on the lightning-fast ‘collapse’ of PTI.
“Imran Khan, inadvertently or deliberately, constructed the relationship between the voter and the party as a cult of personality, instead of consolidating a strong party structure,” she says. “PTI should have had a plan to complete the government’s term after the vote of no confidence ousted Khan as prime minister. However, they did not, and what was also apparent was the lack of a consensus within the party about who the interim leadership of the party would be that could depute for Khan. All political parties have experienced this on some level. In PTI’s case, it is more pronounced.
“What is the party without Khan?” she continues. “There are no answers to that question that leave people with confidence. The populist Imran Khan-centric character of their campaigns was a strength in the past in consolidating a vote base, but it is also a vulnerability. Khan needed to curate his successors, which he neglected to do. Dynasties are not necessary to succession, but succession is vital to the future of a party.”
But is PTI’s situation different from what the PML-N faced in 2000-2002 or in 2018? Alam feels that the comparison between PTI in 2023 and PML-N in 2000-2002 is both interesting and instructive.
It is interesting because, in both cases, fear, persecution and temptation were used to downsize the two parties, though with the small difference that Nawaz Sharif chose to go into exile, leaving behind Javed Hashmi and his nephew Hamza Shehbaz to take care of the party. He also didn’t have the facility to remain personally and directly in touch with his supporters and voters through social media, a facility that Khan is trying to utilise to stay alive in politics.
“So, even if Imran Khan has to go into exile,” Alam elaborates, “he will be much better placed than Sharif to remain a force to reckon with in Pakistan’s political arena, given that he has mastered the art of using social media to his advantage.
“The other major difference between the two situations is that Sharif then secured his freedom from trial and imprisonment through a deal, and he chose to fight another day, whereas Khan seems adamant on fighting to the death here and now,” continues Alam. “Whether he will be able to survive trials and impending imprisonment is anybody’s guess, but it is apparent that he is neither willing to relinquish control of his party as Sharif did, nor does he appear ready to leave Pakistan and go abroad into exile.”
The comparison is instructive because it shows that political parties that have acquired a popular constituency in some segment of the population will always bounce back to the extent of the size of that popular constituency after the era of trial and persecution is over. If Khan too has consolidated his urban middle class constituency, he could certainly make a comeback in the political arena after he has undergone a trial by fire.
However, there is one crucial difference between Sharif circa 2000 and Imran Khan in 2023. While the former faced trial for treason and terrorism, he stayed away from criticising and attacking the military and instead focused on accusing a few individuals for his plight. The latter, on the other hand, stands accused of having instigated a full-fledged popular rebellion against the military.
“In this, he is likely to be treated more like Altaf Hussain,” Alam wagers, “who, despite having a diehard support base in Karachi and Hyderabad, has become a political non-entity and his party has been reduced to a pale shadow of its past grandeur, only because of the open challenges that he made against the military.”
ENTER JAHANGIR TAREEN
On June 8, exactly a month after PTI launched its protests, a new party, the Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party (IPP), was formed by some of Khan’s former allies and led by Jahangir Khan Tareen, who was once Khan’s closest aide.
It was the latest in a series of moves being made to shut down ‘Project Imran’. It is no doubt being hoped that the new party, which brought into its fold many of the same politicians that had dissociated from PTI only a few days earlier, will cut into PTI’s vote bank and offer an easily manipulated bloc of seats in a new parliament. Interestingly, some individuals, like former PTI mouthpiece Fawad Chaudhry, were seen avoiding the limelight. He refused to take a seat reserved for him on the stage and chose to sit in the back row, with his face hidden in his hands. Was this due to guilt, shame or perhaps both?
Explaining the factors that led him to form a new party, Tareen — Pakistan’s largest sugar manufacturer, who had joined PTI in 2011 after leaving the Chaudhrys of Gujrat’s Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PMLQ) — said, “Pakistan today needs leadership which can end political and social divisions, and promote unity and harmony. We have to take Pakistan out of the prevailing chaos which is destroying the country.”
From the outset, some have dubbed the new party a non-starter. “It’s a stillbirth,” says Bari, echoing the sentiments of Shah Mahmood Qureshi after his release from jail. “The way in which it has been created, and Khan’s PTI being sidelined, will stir up a strong public reaction. It will generate a new energy in PTI’s support base and increase resentment against the establishment. If PTI is allowed to contest the next elections, you’ll see a much higher voter turnout, just like what we saw during the by-polls in July and October.”
Traditionally, however, it’s not at all clear that political resentment at the establishment leads to a higher voter turnout in Pakistan. By-polls are also no credible indicator of how things turn out in the general elections. And one cannot dismiss the effects that demoralisation may play on the party voter, especially if Khan is convicted and put behind bars.
However, Alam also doesn’t think that the IPP is going to make much of a difference in the country’s political arena. As he puts it, “Tareen’s new party has failed to attract the big ticket political leaders and electables so far. This is mainly because of the lacklustre support it enjoys from the military establishment and also due to the fact that Tareen’s own political future is uncertain as he has been disqualified from running in elections.
“In my opinion, his party is not going to critically damage Khan and PTI any more than other tactics, like the coercion and co-option of its senior leaders,” says Alam. “Tareen is also not the kind of political heavyweight in power politics that the Chaudhrys of Gujrat were in 2002. They certainly had way more political capital, particularly in Punjab at that time, than Tareen has ever had.”
CAN PTI SURVIVE MINUS ONE?
Kugelman is of the view that PTI won’t die unless Khan is removed from the political scene altogether, because Khan is PTI, and vice versa. “That said, with his supporters worried about their own safety, politicking as we know it for Khan has likely ended, at least for now,” he says. “If Khan is arrested, that will galvanise his base for a brief period, but if he’s sentenced to a long jail sentence, and especially if he’s disqualified, that could really do him in.”
Analysts like Cheema, however, believe that, “PTI’s is a suppressed vote, not a broken vote. The events of May 9 have not fundamentally altered the reasons why people support Khan.” She expects that there is also some degree of fatigue with the political intrigue and conflict among Pakistani voters, whose main challenge is the acute economic crisis.
“There may be a negative impact on voter turnout in this election,” says Cheema. “The main priority for voters is for political representatives to solve their issues. With this election, as with elections in the past, voters will be calculating which candidates have the right kind of influence to do something for them. But they are unlikely to be positive or enthusiastic.”
Alam cautions against ruling out Khan’s popularity so quickly. “If he is allowed to run in the elections himself and has the freedom to lead his party’s electoral campaign, he still has a very strong voter base in central Punjab’s large urban centres and can win a sizable number of seats, regardless of the weakness or strength of his candidates. If he is barred from running in the elections and is not allowed to lead PTI’s election campaign, he may only end up winning as many seats as the PML-N did in 2002. Also, in this case, I suspect that voter turnout in central Punjab’s urban centres could remain very low.”
On the other hand, if Khan’s party continues to crumble and is unable to find sufficient candidates for the next elections, this will certainly help the PML-N’s electoral prospects in central Punjab. A low turnout though could lead to unpredictable electoral outcomes, with many dark horses, such as independents and/or those belonging to parties other than the PML-N and PTI, potentially emerging victorious.
In the 2002 elections, for example, the PPP had benefited significantly in central Punjab because of the Noon League’s weaknesses at the time and due to the low voter turnout. PPP will be hoping for a similar advantage this time around too, although PMLN’s presence in the electoral fray will certainly slim down its chances of victory in central Punjab.
With uncertainty surrounding how things will unfold over the next several weeks before the elections, the near future certainly does not bode well for Khan. Under pressure due to his own trials and the arrest of his senior aides while also facing a media blackout, he has largely been cornered.
If he is disqualified from taking part in the elections, or sentenced and imprisoned before the elections, this will further decimate his political and electoral prospects. If he remains free and able to utilise social media platforms, he will still remain a potent and disruptive force in political and electoral terms.
In the distant future, say in the next five to 10 years, he can either make an electoral comeback as Sharif did in 2008 after his defeat in 2002 or he can further hurt himself just as Hussain has done since 2016. Chances are that he will take the second route rather than the first, because of his personal temperament and political style.
Both Khan’s politics and personality adhere to an ‘all or nothing’ approach. Which is why, if he does not get his way, he is highly likely to act in a manner that further jeopardises his politics.
The writer is Dawn’s Lahore Bureau Chief
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 18th, 2023