Activists of Imran Khan’s party Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) take part in a thanksgiving day rally in Islamabad on November 2, 2016. — AFP/File

Confrontation, escalation and demolition — PTI’s journey in 2023 presents a not-so-brief account of what befell the party in 2023.
Published January 2, 2024

Ex-premier Imran Khan had begun 2023 continuing on a warpath against those he held responsible for his ouster from office. Twelve months later, he is incarcerated in Adiala jail and his beloved party lays in pieces at his feet.

Political analysts have likened the state’s crackdown on the PTI to an attempt to “dismantle” the party. Stripped of nearly all of its political heavyweights in the aftermath of the violent events of May 9, the party is but a mere shadow of its former self and its performance in elections, which was guaranteed at one point, is now a huge question mark.

How did the party go from riding the waves of its popularity to having to fight to retain its ‘bat’ electoral symbol? presents a not-so-brief account of what befell the party in 2023.

Act 1: Hell hath no fury like a politician scorned

Still feeling the sting of being booted from the premiership, Imran began 2023 by following through on a threat made in November 2022; the PTI had announced that its governments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would dissolve the assemblies to pave the way for fresh elections. By January, it had followed through on its threat as it tried to twist the Pakistan Democratic Movement government’s arm into holding polls.

At the same time, Imran’s political rhetoric was on a roll, so to speak, with his metaphorical guns turned towards the powers that be. In 2022, he had accused a serving intelligence officer of being behind the attempt on his life in Wazirabad and also castigated ex-army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa on several occasions.

In 2023, slowly but surely, he began to slowly up the ante. In January, he accused Bajwa of stabbing him in the back and alleged that his “set-up” was still active in the establishment purportedly to stop the PTI from coming back to power. In February, after months of harping on about an American conspiracy, he changed his tune and solely held Bajwa, who he dubbed “super king”, responsible for his ouster. These are only two examples of Imran’s political rhetoric at the time.

At the same time, Imran insisted his party was fighting for “Haqeeqi Azadi” (true freedom) in the face of a crackdown by the PDM government. In March, a party worker was killed and several others were injured as the PTI attempted to organise a rally in Lahore. The party leadership insisted the worker was tortured to death while the Punjab government termed it a “road accident”.

The same month, a police attempt to arrest Imran from his Zaman Park residence in Lahore was thwarted by devoted supporters camped outside. A second attempt saw an hours-long standoff between party workers and police officials where the former lobbed petrol bombs as the latter used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd.

Two days later, the Federal Judicial Complex turned into a battlefield as PTI workers clashed with Islamabad police as Imran went to attend a hearing. The ex-premier later alleged that he did not disembark from his vehicle as “unknown people” had been positioned with plans to kill him.

The PTI, it seemed, had no plans of backing down.

Act 2: Come what May 9 — a study of cause and effect

Scene 1: Beginning of the end

By May, the situation had come to a boiling point and after the 9th there was no return. It had begun when Imran reiterated his accusations against the senior intelligence official he held responsible for orchestrating plans to assassinate him.

The regurgitated claims were swiftly denied by the military, not for the first time, which regretted Imran’s “highly irresponsible and baseless allegations”. The military also noted a “consistent pattern for the last year wherein military and intelligence agencies officials are targeted with insinuations and sensational propaganda for the furtherance of political objectives”.

But Imran doubled down on his allegations ahead of appearing before the Islamabad High Court and confidently stated that he could prove his claims.

On this day, which has been carved into the collective conscience of all those in the newsroom, Imran was arrested from the premises of the Islamabad judicial complex and the fate of the PTI was forever sealed. The arrest set off a chain reaction across the country, which saw violent protests lasting two days.

Social media services were blocked and exams were cancelled as Imran’s supporters flooded the streets in all major cities. The fear of it turning into a full-blown security situation was palpable. Even with the disruption in social media services, the visuals coming in were worrying as rioters stormed the residence of the Lahore corps commander and laid siege to the gates of the country’s real power seat, the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. State broadcaster Radio Pakistan‘s building was also set on fire in Peshawar and monuments dedicated to the memory of the country’s martyrs were also not spared.

The PTI was blamed for doing the unforgivable and the fallout was swift and brutal as the state went after the PTI’s senior leadership, some of whom still remain in jail. Imran was eventually released by the Supreme Court and granted subsequent relief by the IHC while PTI leaders and workers were rounded up in connection with the violence.

Zahid Hussain described it best in an op-ed for Dawn on May 24 when he said, “The May 9 mayhem provided the establishment a justification to strike back with a severity not witnessed in recent times”.

The military was swift to term the entire affair a “black chapter” and resolved to try the rioters under the Army Act and the Official Secrets Act. While the condemnation was widespread from across the political spectrum, the party itself dawdled in denouncing the violence. And when Imran finally broke his silence, it was to demand an independent investigation into the riots by a panel constituted by the chief justice of Pakistan.

The state’s wrath over the events was evident, with PTI leaders being arrested under the public order laws shortly after being set free by the courts. Arrests and re-arrests became the norm as a litany of cases emerged against the party’s leadership.

Faced with such pressure, one by one, like dominoes toppling over in succession, the PTI’s top-tier, second-tier and no-tier leadership began to abandon the party. The biggest blow that began the exodus came with the exit of Shireen Mazari, the former human rights minister. Mazari — who was also rounded up after the May 9 violence — announced that she was not only quitting the party but was also retiring from “active politics” for personal reasons.

Then came the departure of Fawad Chaudhry, Imran Ismail, Ali Haider Zaidi, Pervez Khattak and Asad Umar’s decision to quit party positions.

The script, so to speak, was eerily similar. Step 1: call a press conference. Step 2: unequivocally condemn the events of May 9 and disagree with Imran’s confrontational politics. Step 3: bid farewell to PTI or politics in general and exit stage right. For some PTI leaders, the departure came after they “resurfaced” following a stint in jail.

Whispers of banning the PTI altogether picked up steam as mentions of Imran and his narrative were prohibited. And as the courts began the handing over of suspects to the military for trial, the army announced in June that three officers, including a lieutenant general, were sacked as a part of the military’s “self-accountability process” into the events of May 9 — yet another reminder that the violence would not go unpunished.

The Supreme Court was petitioned against the military trials of civilians, during which it emerged that 102 people, arrested from various parts of the country in the wake of May 9 violence, were in the military’s custody.

In October, the top court declared unconstitutional the military trials of civilians for their alleged role. The verdict was met with anger from the families of martyrs with lawmakers in the upper house of Parliament tabling a controversial resolution urging the court to reconsider its verdict.

However, the so-called relief for the PTI was short-lived as a separate SC bench in November suspended the earlier verdict, allowing for the military trials of civilians to go ahead.

Scene 2: Politics and life go on

Some of the politicians that abandoned PTI following post-May 9 exited politics outright, but the rest had just bid farewell to their old job and were seeking a new one. From the ashes of the PTI, rose at least two new political parties — Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party (IPP) and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Parliamentarians (PTI-P).

IPP was formally launched by Jahangir Khan Tareen, once a close aide of Imran, in June with ex-PTI loyalists. Since then, the party has slowly been adding to its numbers and is rumoured to be considering seat adjustment with the PML-N for the February 8 general election.

The party has vowed to fulfil the promise to bring about ‘Naya Pakistan’ while also pledging ambitious social and economic reforms.

And in July, ex-defence minister Pervez Khattak launched PTI-P. Since the party’s formation, Khattak has not held back against Imran, claiming that the ex-premier acted like a pharaoh with all party leaders strictly following him in all situations.

Act 3: Out of sight, out of mind

Finding himself virtually erased from the airwaves, post-May 9 Imran also found his legal woes to be expanding by the day. The cipher case, the Toshakhana case and the Al-Qadir Trust case became major thorns in the ex-premier’s side.

In August, Imran was arrested for a second time in 2023, this time in the Toshakhana case and was sentenced to three years in prison. The verdict also saw him being disqualified by the Election Commission of Pakistan for five years.

The sentence was suspended by the IHC but Imran’s imprisonment continued in the cipher case, which also saw PTI’s Shah Mahmood Qureshi being taken into custody. PTI workers were also rounded up for holding rallies against Imran’s arrest.

Amid Imran’s mounting legal troubles, the caretaker government, which was sworn-in in August, insisted that “fair” elections were possible without Imran and there was no restriction on the party taking part in polls, which had yet to be announced.

By November, with the intervention of the Supreme Court, it was decided that general elections would be held on February 8. The same month, the Election Commission of Pakistan directed the PTI to hold intra-party polls within 20 days or lose its iconic ‘bat’ symbol — which would become an obstacle for the party to contest general elections.

In an effort to pre-empt any move to strip the party of its electoral symbol, Imran himself made the decision to not contest intra-party polls, instead nominating Barrister Gohar Khan for the top slot.

During this time, the PTI decried that it was being stopped from carrying out political activities and voiced concerns about a lack of a level playing field.

Gohar was elected unopposed as the PTI chairman on December 2 but days later the ECP stripped the party of its electoral symbol anyway after deeming its intra-party polls as “unconstitutional”. And to add salt to injury, as preparations began for the general elections, the nomination papers of PTI’s top leadership were rejected by the ECP.

With the sun having set on 2023, the PTI has found itself in a vastly different position compared to how it started the year. The cases against Imran are here to stay and it does not seem as if he will be released any time soon. Elections, which were supposed to happen within 90 days of the dissolution of the National Assembly in August, are now scheduled to happen on Feb 8 but how the party fares is anyone’s guess.