Imran Khan’s Triumph Against the Odds

Despite facing the collective opposition of Washington and its local allies, Pakistan’s incarcerated, charismatic leader has scored a stunning electoral victory against his detractors – though the military still holds the power play.

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s jailed 71-year-old former cricketer-turned-politician, surprised the US and its allies in Islamabad with his party’s stunning victory in the 8 February parliamentary elections.

Locked behind bars and serving a cumulative 30-year sentence over three corruption cases, the triumph of Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party defied all odds, snapping up most of the seats, “humiliating the country’s military rulers, and creating a political crisis” in the process.  

His ousting from office in April 2022 following a parliamentary no-confidence motion, which he claimed was orchestrated by the US, seemed like a temporary setback. Khan’s bold decision to visit Moscow on 23 February, 2022, on the eve of Russia’s Ukraine invasion and its deteriorating ties with the west, further ruffled feathers within Washington and the Pakistani military establishment.

The country’s de-facto military rulers, panicked by Khan’s ‘unexpected’ electoral victory, are presently planning to establish a unity government without Khan’s PTI, seeking to diminish its parliamentary influence through a combination of defections – both coerced and voluntary – leveraging various political factions to achieve their aims.

PTI’s comeback in a rigged game 

According to the country’s Election Commission (ECP), which announced the preliminary results more than 60 hours after polling ended, the independent candidates – fielded by the PTI – bagged 93 seats in the National Assembly (NA) until now. Earlier, the ECP tally showed the PTI clinched 100 seats, but later, those independent members who were not part of the PTI were listed separately. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) got 75, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) secured 54, Muthahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM-P) got 17, and other smaller and regional parties and non-PTI independent members clinched 26 seats. The NA has a total of 266 seats, excluding 60 reserved for women and non-Muslims.

Barrister Gohar Ali, who assumed the position of PTI Chairman after Khan’s incarceration for ethical and financial transgressions, tells The Cradle: “We secured 170 seats in the National Assembly and are ready to set up a government in the center as well as in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.” 

He adds that the PTI’s symbolic cricket bat emblem has been withdrawn by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in a petulant move that underscores how silly electoral machinations have become. 

Out of these seats, 100 are those that the ECP has admitted and issued provisional results for, but 70 seats, including three in Islamabad, four in Sindh, and the rest in Punjab, are being converted into defeated ones even though the PTI had won them.

According to Ali, the PTI was able to demonstrate such a tremendous achievement despite that its election campaign was not allowed. PTI candidates were harassed, arrested, and barred from holding public meetings. 

“Mobile networks were stopped statewide on Thursday, hindering party officials’ ability to inform supporters about their selected independent candidate in each constituency. Our workers were unable to monitor polling locations. The level of manipulation occurring in the poll was excessively absurd,” he declares.

Partisan maneuvering and manipulation

On 10 February, the Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR), the official communication channel of the army, released a statement from the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Syed Asim Munir, outlining a policy-driven vision for the country’s governance. 

General Munir emphasized the imperative of establishing a “unity government” to ensure the stability needed to propel Pakistan’s economic progress forward.

A day earlier, Khan’s political rival, PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif echoed similar sentiments in his speech, tasking his brother, former prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, with reaching out to key parties like the PPP and MQM-P to explore alliances.

Subsequently, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto and Vice Chairman Asif Ali Zardari engaged in discussions with PML-N’s Shahbaz Sharif, with Zardari entrusted to liaise with other parliamentary factions – including independents – to consolidate support for their envisioned coalition. Additionally, a delegation from MQM-P conferred with Nawaz Sharif to strategize for the future.

The hectic political activities in Islamabad aim to thwart the PTI’s chances of coming to power by reducing its parliamentary strength through forced or bribed defections. Before the poll, there were widespread speculations about a power-sharing arrangement between the PML-N and PPP, in which Sharif would take on the position of prime minister and Zardari would accept the post of president. The likelihood of a coalition being formed between the two parties is very high.

Since the PTI lawmakers are officially categorized as independents, they are not obligated to vote by party affiliation. This gives rise to the potential for coerced defections. Furthermore, without joining a political party, the PTI cannot secure its share of the National Assembly’s 70 “reserved seats” designated for women and minorities, which are distributed proportionally according to a party’s overall vote. It is also important to note that Khan is presently imprisoned and disqualified from seeking political candidacy.

Erosion of Pakistan’s electoral integrity

Despite these challenges, PTI emerged as the largest single party post-election, a formidable force poised to play a pivotal role in shaping Pakistan’s political future. However, a notable consequence of these elections has been the marginalization of religious and nationalist parties, particularly evident in regions like Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the Awami National Party (ANP) faced significant setbacks.

Speaking to The Cradle, Zahid Khan, the ANP central spokesperson says:

Once again, the people of smaller provinces have been denied their rightful representation, not as an act of revenge from voters, but as part of a preplanned strategy … The political forces in Punjab and Sindh are not willing to let them govern despite the PTI having sufficient seats in the Punjab provincial assembly and the national assembly.

In the lead-up to the national elections, efforts were underway to undermine Imran Khan’s chances of returning to power, orchestrated by influential elements within the state apparatus. The Election Commission, responsible for overseeing fair elections, dealt a blow to the PTI by invalidating its intra-party election on 22 December. 

However, PTI swiftly challenged this decision in the Peshawar High Court, securing a temporary suspension of the ruling on 26 December. However, this respite was short-lived as the court ultimately sided with the ECP, reinstating the decision to nullify PTI’s internal election and revoke its electoral symbol.

Prosecution or political persecution? 

Meanwhile, the legal machinery accelerated its proceedings, seemingly aimed at barring Khan from participating in the upcoming election. In a controversial ruling on 30 January, Khan was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a trial court for allegedly unlawfully disclosing sensitive information.

Notably, the hearings took place within the confines of Rawalpindi prison, where Khan was detained, deviating from the norm of a public courtroom setting. His legal team protested against this unconventional procedure, citing constitutional violations.

Khan’s incarceration since August stemmed from his vocal criticism of the military, with this particular case revolving around a diplomatic cable that went missing while under his purview. Khan, while denying direct involvement, had referenced the memo as evidence of foreign interference in his removal from office in 2022.

On 31 January, the next day, an anti-corruption court in Pakistan sentenced the former prime minister and his wife, Bushra Khan, to 14 years in prison each, on the charge of unlawfully selling state articles. This occurred just one day after Khan was sentenced to 10 years in prison in a separate case. Following the third conviction recently imposed on the beleaguered former cricket star, the conditions also entail a 10-year ban on holding public and party offices.

In another instance, a local court imposed a seven-year sentence on Khan and his spouse for engaging in a marriage that the court deemed “un-Islamic” – a ruling declared earlier this month in a case initiated by the ex-husband of Bushra Bibi.

If there were any lingering doubts regarding Khan’s allegations of US interference in Pakistan’s delicate democratic processes, recent events seem to validate his claims. This wouldn’t be the first instance of Washington and its intelligence networks undermining a populist, democratically-elected leader in the region, echoing historical precedents such as the 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

F.M. Shakil is a Pakistani writer covering political, environmental, and economic issues, and is a regular contributor at Akhbar Al-Aan in Dubai and Asia Times in Hong Kong. He writes extensively about China-Pakistan strategic relations, particularly Beijing’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

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