A car is seen burning along a road as PTI activists and supporters of Imran block a road during a protest against the arrest of their leader in Karachi on May 9. — AFP

Six months to May 9: How PTI went from heights of popularity to facing obscurity

6 months after the riots that followed Imran Khan's May 9 arrest, we look at what led to that fateful day and the aftermath.
Published November 10, 2023

PTI leaders are still ditching their party in the wake of the events of May 9 riots that followed Imran Khan’s arrest, which occurred half a year ago.

One of the latest additions to the long list of defectors is Sadaqat Ali Abbasi, who resigned from his party position and retired from politics during a live TV interview last month.

The PTI leader had disappeared for several months, leading to speculations of being ‘picked up’ after May 9. Upon his return, he was quick to condemn the “radical” views against the establishment within his now former party and declared that he could no longer “shoulder the burden of the events of May 9”.

He is not the only one.

Ever since the events of May 9, PTI leaders have been leaving the Imran Khan-led party. It is almost like clockwork how each member goes through the same process: getting ‘picked up’ or arrested, coming forward, condemning the May 9 violence, and then quitting the party — and/or politics altogether. Wash, rinse, repeat.

But how did the most popular party in the country go from widespread acceptance to the margins of obscurity within half a year? To understand this, Dawn.com traces the events that led to that infamous May day six months ago and the subsequent exodus of PTI members, as well as the party’s unravelling.

This piece will not be covering every single event that transpired but is a broad refresher to what’s going on.

Beginning of the end

April 10, 2022: Vote of no confidence

It can be argued that the beginning of the end started much before — when the ‘same page’ tore in Oct 2022 — the culmination of the gulf between the PTI and its benefactors was the no-confidence vote.

Imran Khan became the first prime minister in Pakistan to be ousted from his position via a no-confidence vote, executed under Article 95 of the Constitution on April 10 last year. A total of 174 out of the 342 members in the parliament voted in support of the opposition’s motion of no confidence.

“The one we had declared selected, the non-democratic burden this country was bearing for the past three years, today, April 10, 2022, welcome back to purana (old) Pakistan,” said Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

May 25, 2022: Imran’s long march

On May 22, the PTI chairman announced his party’s long march towards Islamabad for two main demands: the dissolution of assemblies and a date for elections. The march would commence three days later and in so many words, told the military establishment to stick to its stated stance of being “neutral”.

“I want to give a little background of how we reached here. There was a foreign conspiracy against Pakistan from the US. In this regime change, they used locals — the most corrupt people, who were ready to become part of any conspiracy to save their corruption,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t stop it.”

The march was called off by the PTI chief to “prevent chaos”. “We held a peaceful protest on May 25 but they inflicted violence on us. And if I had not called it off then the next day there really would’ve been discord and blood in the country,” he said.

July 18, 2022: PTI’s crucial win in Punjab

In the significant Punjab by-elections, PTI secured victory in a minimum of 15 seats out of the 20 that became vacant following the disqualification of PTI members who had supported Hamza Shehbaz’s bid for the position of Punjab chief minister. In contrast, the ruling PML-N managed to win just four seats.

 — Dawn.com
— Dawn.com

August 22, 2022: Imran was charged with terrorism and later given bail

Imran was booked in a terrorism case for “threatening” a female judge and senior police officers in a public rally under Section 144. He was later given interim bail till Sept 7 by an anti-terrorism court (ATC).

October 21, 2022: Imran was disqualified by the ECP

The former premier faced disqualification in the Toshakhana reference due to a violation of Article 63(1)(p), which pertains to providing false statements and inaccurate declarations as determined by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), sparking protests in various cities.

According to the ECP, Imran Khan did not disclose details of gifts in the statement of his assets and liabilities for the year 2018-19 and the sale proceeds.

PTI leader Asad Umar tweeted that the decision would be challenged in the courts as a “minus Imran would always remain a distant dream”.

At this point, a message from Imran said, “By the time my message reaches you, I might have been put behind bars in an unfair case,” as he urged his supporters to “come out”.

October 27, 2022: Army, ISI’s unprecedented press conference

In an unexpected press conference, Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmed Anjum, the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), joined Lt Gen Babar Iftikhar, the then director-general of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), to discuss various topics, including the former prime minister’s stance towards the military and the journalist Arshad Sharif’s murder.

This marked the first instance in Pakistan’s history where the country’s intelligence agency head addressed the media directly.

“I am aware that you are surprised by my presence,” he acknowledged, explaining that he was there on behalf of his institution and the officers sacrificing their lives. “As chief of this agency, I cannot remain silent when they are targeted for no reason.”

He went on to reveal that in March, there had been “a lot of pressure”, but both the institution and the army chief (Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa) made the decision to confine the military to its constitutionally defined role.

Lt Gen Anjum also disclosed that in March, Gen Bajwa was presented with an attractive proposal by the government in power at the time to extend his term. “It was made in front of me. He rejected it because he wanted the institution to move forward from a controversial role to a constitutional role.”

Speaking indirectly about the former prime minister, the ISI chief questioned that while citizens had the right to their opinion, why did “you praise him so much in the past if he was a traitor?”

“If you see him as a traitor, then why do you meet him through the back door? […] Don’t meet quietly at night through the back door and express your unconstitutional wishes but call [the army chief] a traitor in broad daylight. That’s a big contradiction between your words and your actions,” he stated.

October 28, 2022: ‘Haqeeqi Azadi March’ at last

Imran began his much anticipated “Haqeeqi Azadi” march towards Islamabad with an uncompromising speech that directly criticised the country’s top intelligence officers, including the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Speaking in Lahore, he accused the ISI director general of holding a “political presser” and pointed out two other military officers for behaving like “Dirty Harry” by allegedly abducting and torturing Azam Swati, a party senator.

He reiterated that the sole solution to the myriad problems facing the nation lay in conducting free and fair early elections.

“Pakistan must have a government that is able enough to take decisions aimed at public welfare instead of the puppets working on the instructions of Washington,” he added.

November 3, 2022: Imran shot

The former prime minister sustained injuries in a shooting incident when a suspect opened fire with an automatic pistol as the party’s ‘Haqeeqi Azadi’ march reached Allahwala Chowk in Punjab’s Wazirabad.

During the shocking incident, a PTI supporter named Muazzam Nawaz lost his life, and 14 party leaders and workers, including Senator Faisal Javed Khan, Ahmad Nasir Chattha, and Omer Mayar, were injured.

Imran, who suffered multiple gunshot wounds to his leg, was swiftly transported to Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital in Lahore.

Fawad Chaudhry, then a senior leader of the PTI, described the incident as a meticulously planned assassination attempt on Imran Khan.

As emotions ran wild, the party’s Punjab President Dr Yasmin Rashid issued a warning that “Imran Khan is our red line, and now you have crossed the line”.

The assailant, as seen in a leaked police video, stated he “made every effort to target him (Imran) alone, with no harm to anyone else, because he was leading people astray,” and insisted he was acting independently.

Imran accused a senior military official of conspiring to murder him and would up the ante as time went on.

Eventually, the state would come for Imran — described by his party as a “red line” that should not be crossed.

March 5, 2023: Imran evades arrest at Zaman Park

The PTI chairman managed to dodge being arrested when Islamabad Police arrived at his Lahore residence in Zaman Park to serve him with court summons for his persistent non-attendance at Toshakhana court hearings.

Despite the Islamabad police chief’s earlier declaration that they wouldn’t return without making the arrest, the presence of a larger number of PTI supporters compared to the police contingent prevented the arrest from taking place.

Mar 14, 2023: Police clash with PTI supporters at Zaman Park

Police made a second attempt to arrest Imran, but were met with stiff resistance from his supporters. They lobbed petrol bombs, fired slingshots and wielded clubs while police fired volleys of teargas and employed water cannons against them — to no avail.

Eventually, the Lahore High Court ordered an end to the operation.

But a month later, Imran would be arrested.

May 9, 2023: Imran was arrested by paramilitary forces

In a surprise move, Imran was taken into custody by paramilitary Rangers at the Islamabad High Court (IHC) regarding the Al Qadir Trust case. He was released on May 12 when the IHC prohibited authorities from apprehending him in any legal matter.

Massive protests erupted across the country, some of which enveloped army property and installations. Protesters stormed the residence of the corps commander in Lahore and laid siege to a gate of the army’s General Headquar­ters in Rawalpindi.

A view of a house in the cantonment area, which was set afire by supporters of Imran Khan during a protest against his arrest in Lahore. — Reuters
A view of a house in the cantonment area, which was set afire by supporters of Imran Khan during a protest against his arrest in Lahore. — Reuters

Police fired teargas and water cannons to disperse Imran’s sup­p­orters in Karachi and Lahore, while protesters blocked roads in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Pesha­war, Faisalabad, Multan, Quetta, etc.

“Immediately after this arrest, attacks were perpetrated on the army’s properties and installations while slogans anti-army slogans were raised,” said the military’s media wing.

Black smoke billows from a street installation set alight during a protest by PTI activists against the arrest of party chief Imran Khan in Peshawar.—AFP/file
Black smoke billows from a street installation set alight during a protest by PTI activists against the arrest of party chief Imran Khan in Peshawar.—AFP/file

“We are well aware that behind it were orders, directives and complete pre-planning by some sinister party leadership,” their statement added.

“No one can be allowed to incite people and take the law into their hands.”

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif also echoed the army’s sentiment, saying that damaging public property was an “act of terrorism” and “enmity” towards the country and that “they will be given an exemplary punishment.”

The exodus commences

Within days, recriminations and departures would take place. Anticipating a crackdown, many party leaders jumped ship.

May 17, 2023: PTI leaders began quitting the party

Three leaders, including former federal minister Aamer Mehmood Kiani, MNA from Karachi Mahmood Baqi Moulvi and MPA in Sindh Assembly Dr Sanjay Gangwani, announced their decisions to part ways with the Imran-led party.

“I can’t go along with this [PTI] party,” he said. “I demand the law-enforcement agencies to take action against all those [PTI] workers involved in the violent incidents of May 9,” said Moulvi.

The riots were an attempt to trigger a sort of ‘Arab Spring’ in Pakistan, he said, referring to a wave of pro-democracy protests and uprisings that took place in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010 and 2011, said Kiani.

May 18, 2023: 3 more leaders part ways with PTI

Malik Amin Aslam, Dr Muhammad Amjad and Dr Imran Ali Shah announced that they are parting ways with the party.

They added that the PTI was becoming “a reason for the country’s destruction and hatred against institutions”.

Aslam, who remained an adviser to the PM on climate change when Imran Khan was the prime minister, said he spent 13 years with PTI. “But it is not possible for me to continue after the attacks on military installations and Jinnah House Lahore.”

In Karachi, PTI’s lawmaker in the Sindh Assembly, Shah, said the vandals “didn’t even spare national institutions” and the May 9 events changed his mind about his political future.

The PTI leaders didn’t give much weight to the party’s third defection — Deputy Secretary Information Amjad — saying he had never won any election and the PTI wasn’t inclined to give him a party ticket.

May 22, 2023: Wajahat Hussain followed suit

In the wake of the May 9 arson attacks, Chaudhry Parvez Elahi’s confidant Wajahat Hussain decided to part ways with PTI and rejoined his parent party — PML-Q.

May 23, 2023: Shireen Mazari quits ‘active politics’, more left

In a major blow to the party, former human rights minister and PTI stalwart Shireen Mazari quit the party and announced her retirement from “active politics” citing personal reasons.

She said her children and her health were her main priority and “nothing else is important for me”.

“From today, I’m not part of PTI or any active party because first [for me are] my family, my mother and kids.”

Following the initial May 9 protests, at least 13 PTI leaders, including Mazari, were arrested under the Maintenance of Public Order ordinance. She was granted bail by courts on multiple occasions but was re-arrested immediately every time.

Fayyazul Hassan Chohan, a former provincial minister and PTI spokesperson, also quit the PTI because he “could not imagine speaking against the army”.

Chohan also lashed out at his former boss and claimed that he had developed differences with the PTI chairman for the last year and that the doors of Banigala and Zaman Park were closed for him.

“Almost one year ago, I sent a WhatsApp to Imran and also forwarded it to a journalist for the record. I don’t want to remain in a party which never cared about me,” he said.

Makhdoom Iftikhar Ali Gilani, a former PTI MPA from Uch Sharif, also announced his decision to quit the party in the backdrop of the May 9 violence in the country.

A former PTI MPA from Khanewal and existing ticket-holder from PP-209, Abdul Razzaq Niazi, in a press conference in Lahore, also parted ways with the PTI.

In Karachi, another duo of PTI MPAs, Omar Omari and Bilal Ahmed Ghaffar, also announced they were quitting the party while condemning May 9.

May 24, 2023: Fawad Chaudhry parts ways

In another significant blow to the PTI, the party’s senior vice president and spokesperson Fawad Chaudhry announced that he was “parting ways” with former prime minister Imran Khan.

Taking to X, formerly Twitter, he said he had resigned from his party position and had “decided to take a break from politics”.

May 25, 2023: Asad Umar steps down while others leave

Asad Umar, a close aide and head of Imran’s economic team, stepped down from his party office in light of the crackdown on the former ruling party.

According to Umar, he was not quitting the party offices “under pressure” — a statement in contrast to claims made by the PTI chairman, who accused the powers that be of coercing members to exit.

ISLAMABAD: PTI leader Asad Umar grimaces at a journalist’s question during his presser. —Tanveer Shahzad / White Star
ISLAMABAD: PTI leader Asad Umar grimaces at a journalist’s question during his presser. —Tanveer Shahzad / White Star

He said he had no pressure to quit the party and that is why he decided to resign from party positions and will remain associated with the party.

At least nine party leaders including Maleeka Bukhari, Jamshed Iqbal Cheema and his wife Musarrat, Malik Akram Kanhon, Javed Ansari, Dr Muhammad Afzal, Chaudhry Ehsanul Haq, Ch Jehanzeb Rasheed, and Saeed Akbar Niwani parted ways with Imran.

Bukhari said PTI leaders and workers “had crossed a red line on May 9” and demanded action against those who attacked military installations.

“It was our failure that we could not control the workers. Mob should not have entered the military installations and I feel bad when I see the pictures of martyrs,” Cheema said.

May 26, 2023: A dozen leaders quit

Former Punjab cabinet members Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan and Murad Raas, among a dozen leaders, announced their decision to leave the party as they did not support the May 9 attacks on state buildings and army installations.

“I believe that the martyrs … their love and the country’s respect are a part of our faith. Those who disrespected martyrs attacked Pakistan’s foundation and ideology.

“Imran Khan and Pakistan can’t function together,” Awan said.

May 27, 2023: Imran Ismail and Ali Zaidi leave PTI

Former Sindh governor Imran Ismail announced that he is leaving the PTI and resigning from all party positions.

“I have decided that I am resigning from positions of the PTI, as I am the additional secretary general and a member of the core committee.

“I am also leaving the PTI … Khan sahib I bid adieu to you and PTI.”

PTI Sindh President Ali Haider Zaidi also announced his decision to “quit” politics and resign from positions within the PTI, describing it as a “difficult decision” that he arrived at after “extensive deliberation”.

In a video message, Zaidi affirmed his commitment to serving Pakistan and emphasised that his initial purpose for joining politics was to contribute to the betterment of the country.

June 1, 2023: Pervez Khattak resigns as PTI provincial president

The PTI suffered a major setback when the party’s provincial president, Pervez Khattak, announced in a press conference his decision to step down from his party position.

A PTI representative, who preferred not to be named, claimed that Khattak, a former federal minister, had only resigned as PTI president of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, just like Asad Umar, and will remain part of the party.

June 29, 2023: City president PTI Akram Cheema also quit

The PTI faced another setback as its Karachi chapter president, Akram Cheema, revealed his departure from the party. He had been appointed as city president by PTI chairman Imran Khan a month before, succeeding Aftab Siddiqi, who left the party after the May 9 episode, primarily due to ‘difference of opinion.’

He was picked up by law enforcement agencies and after a gap of around one week, he was arrested in two cases about the May 9 riots. He was given bail after two days and he quit the party while condemning attacks on military institutions.

July 12, 2023: PTI terminates Khattak’s party membership

PTI terminated the basic party membership of its former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa president Pervez Khattak after he failed to respond to a show-cause notice that sought an explanation for “inciting” members to leave the party.

The termination letter, shared by the PTI on X, said Khattak had not provided a “satisfactory reply within the given stipulated time” to the notice issued to him regarding “contacting party members and inciting them to leave the party”.

“Now, therefore, you are served with this notice of termination from your basic membership of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf,” it stated, adding that Khattak had been terminated with “immediate effect”.

October 4, 2023: Usman Dar leaves

Senior PTI leader and former federal minister Usman Dar, whose whereabouts had been unknown for three weeks, resurfaced in a pre-recorded interview, televised, where he announced a parting of ways with Imran’s party, alleging that the former prime minister was the ‘mastermind of the May 9 riots’.

Dar was reportedly picked up from Karachi in the second week of September.

October 16, 2023: Farrukh Habib resurfaced and quit PTI

Former minister Farrukh Habib, whose whereabouts had been unknown after his arrest from Gwadar last month, resurfaced in a press conference, where he announced parting ways with Imran Khan’s party.

He also joined the newly formed Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party (IPP).

The fragmentation of PTI

June 6, 2023: Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party

Jahangir Khan Tareen, once a close aide of the PTI chief, launched a new party, the Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party (IPP) on June 6 with several other PTI defectors — including those who left in the aftermath of the May 9 incidents — by his side.

Tareen said the events of May 9 had changed the politics of Pakistan and should never happen again.

He added, “So we have gathered here today. We will collectively try to steer Pakistan … out of the quagmire. Our country needs this today. We will together heal the wounds inflicted on Pakistan.”

Former PTI stalwarts Fawad Chaudhry, Ali Zaidi, Imran Ismail, Mahmood Maulvi, Firdous Ashiq Awan, Ajmal Wazir, Nauraiz Shakoor, Fayyazul Hasan Chohan, Amir Mehmood Kayani and former PTI financer Aleem Khan also joined Tareen’s side.

July 17, 2023: Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Parliamentarians (PTI-P)

Just a few days later, Khattak launched his own breakaway faction of the party by the name of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Parliamentarians (PTI-P).

In a video of the gathering, Khattak was seen saying that like-minded former parliamentarians from KP had gathered today and after consultation, “we agreed to decide a future political strategy”.

“It was mutually decided that we will lay the foundation of a new party, which will be named Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Parliamentarians.

According to a handout issued by the party, Khattak is the new party’s chief while “more than 57” ex-PTI MPAs also joined the party.

Imran’s woes continue

August 5, 2023: Imran detained again

Punjab police arrested Imran from his Lahore residence after his conviction in the Toshkhana case. He was sentenced to three years in jail and fined Rs100,000 and has been in Attock jail since then.

August 29, 2023: The cipher case

IHC suspended the Toshakhana sentence, but Imran was not released as it emerged that he was already on judicial remand in the cipher case.

The FIA accuses him and Shah Mahmood Qureshi of breaching the Official Secrets Act in the matter of an allegedly missing diplomatic document that supposedly contained a US threat to oust Imran Khan from power. He was indicted in the case later.

Oct 23, 2023: Imran, Qureshi indicted

The former prime minister and his foreign minister were indicted in the cipher case.

Imran currently faces around 180 cases, according to a Dawn report.