The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf finds itself in a precarious situation ahead of 2024 general elections, confronting severe challenges that jeopardise its mere existence. With its founder imprisoned, electoral symbol lost, and several key leaders having departed, the PTI is teetering on the brink of a potential electoral extinction.
While the popularity of the PTI founder is arguably at an all-time high, the legal challenges he and his party members are embroiled in have overshadowed everything else.
Their challenges largely stem from the events of May 9 last year when Imran was arrested in Al Qadir Trust Case, which had sparked public outrage and violent riots that saw military installations come under attack — with the allegation being that its founder Imran Khan and senior party leadership masterminded it.
The incident and what followed after greatly damaged much of the party’s political infrastructure built over the past 13 years that had seen it emerge as a formidable electoral force.
The PTI was formed in Lahore on April 25, 1996 by cricket legend and its then chairman Imran with the help of a few others.
Since its inception, the party has fought four elections and skipped one, consistently expanding its reach and influence with each electoral cycle.
In the 1997 polls, the first of its five so far, the PTI failed to secure even a single seat. Five years later, it broke its proverbial duck, clinching one seat in the National Assembly, with Imran himself being the sole winner.
In 2008, the PTI opted to boycott the elections, asserting that an elected parliament held little significance under a president in military uniform. Till then, Imran and PTI were considered bit part players, not take
A watershed moment in PTI’s journey came in an October 2011 rally at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, which was attended by a massive crowd and covered live by mainstream TV channels, giving the first clear indication that the PTI could be force to be reckoned with in two years’ time when the general elections take place.
But despite his ability to mobilize the public for rallies, Imran was unable to win the 2013 polls, bagging 32 NA seats. Nonetheless, the PTI still formed a government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) through an alliance with Jamaat-i-Islami.
Even in the face of the 2013 electoral setback in the NA, the PTI emerged as a potent political force, giving the then PML-N government a very hard time from the opposition benches for the next five years.
Over the past two elections, an interesting competition evolved between the PTI and the PML-N. In 2013, the triumphant PML-N garnered 14.87 million votes, while the PTI secured 7.67 million votes. Fast forward to 2018, and the tables turned, with the PTI claiming the lead with 16.85 million votes, while the PML-N secured 12.89 million votes.
The rise and fall
In 2018, after 22 years of its inception, the PTI finally managed to emerge as the biggest party in the general elections albeit the support of allies and independents
Upon assuming office as the prime minister in 2018, Imran struggled to tackle soaring inflation, and the party seemed to buckle under the weight of expectations as well as unrealistic promises it had itself made.
The PTI’s challenges were exacerbated by a number of factors, including its sour ties with the establishment, a reluctance to engage with the opposition, and backlash over Usman Buzdar’s appointment as Punjab chief minister.
The party, once famously on the same page with the establishment, now encountered challenges when trying to assert civilian supremacy in dealing with the establishment, especially during an incident in October 2021 related to the appointment of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief.
Reports had indicated that during a cabinet meeting, Imran expressed his desire for the then spymaster, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, to continue in the role. However, the military’s top leadership had other ideas.
The PTI’s downfall began in early 2022 when the party saw several of its allies break their alliance Imran. It was at this point that during a public rally in Islamabad, Imran waved a letter, alleging it a foreign conspiracy to destabilise his government. In the following days, the party supremo accused the United States of being the architect of his ouster from the government, although Washington denied it categorically.
The former PM said that the no-confidence move against him was part of a foreign conspiracy, claiming that the cable received from Pakistan’s ambassador to the US on March 7, a day before the opposition officially filed the no-trust move against him, was evidence of the conspiracy.
Imran claimed the letter indicated a threat from a US diplomat, stating that Pakistan would face consequences unless he was ousted through a no-confidence motion.
On April 9, 2022, the joint opposition successfully passed a no-confidence motion, resulting in Imran’s unceremonious ouster from office and sparking a significant political crisis in the country.
Early signs of farewell?
The PTI, its supporters, and analysts were all caught off guard by the storm that unfolded after the ouster of the PTI government.
Imran found himself entangled in various legal cases, prominently Toshakhana, Al Qadir Trust, and cipher cases, shortly after his removal from office.
A year later, on May 9, 2023, the situation took a darker turn when Imran was arrested outside the Islamabad High Court in connection with the Al Qadir Trust case. This arrest triggered nationwide violent protests, including attacks on military installations. Although he was bailed out, a succession of additional cases awaited him in the legal pipeline.
Subsequently, the party faced a crackdown launched by the state, which saw numerous of its leaders and workers arrested. For the leaders, the only way left by the state to walk free was to hold a press conference, disassociate yourself from the PTI and hold Imran responsible for May 9 violence.
In a matter of months, nearly all prominent figures within the party hierarchy had departed the PTI.
The party’s challenges escalated when the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) refused to accept the validity of the intra-party elections, subsequently revoking the party’s electoral symbol, the “bat.” The matter was brought before the apex court, which upheld the ECP’s stance. As a result, the PTI lost its symbol, leaving hundreds of its election hopefuls with no choice but to run as independent candidates under a variety of symbols.
Imran, already barred from contesting elections due to legal complications, was slapped with a 10-year jail sentence in the cipher case, and so was senior party leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi.