The reluctance of former Prime Minister and chairman Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Imran Khan to participate in an All-Parties Conference called by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif after the deadly Peshawar suicide attack is a stark reminder that Khan is unwilling to play ball.
At a time when there is dire need for a consensus in the country, the continued divisiveness and polarization is making the pursuit of any coherent policy direction – especially on the economic front – almost impossible to achieve. Admittedly, the ruling coalition is unwilling to budge as well, fueling the ongoing polycrisis.
Recent arrests of PTI leaders, and of journalists in its camp, have aggravated the political climate to the extent that PTI now labels the current government ‘fascist’. The tables have indeed turned.
Imran Khan’s announcement that he will not contest by-elections on the 33 National Assembly seats indicates that he is also reading the writing on the wall. A variety of cases challenging his ‘qualification’ to contest elections – especially under the constitutional provisions that set the vague definition of who is eligible to hold a public office – are moving quickly towards their logical conclusion. While it is too early to predict if the Supreme Court of Pakistan will uphold his disqualification if it should happen at a lower level, there are undeniable signals that the winds are now blowing in different directions than before.
For years, Pakistan’s powerful establishment, the superior courts and sections of the media had collaborated to enable Khan’s rise to power. That somewhere down the line, he faltered and fell out with top commanders of the military, is also a well-known story now. Khan kept his promise of being ‘more dangerousʼ once out of office, and put up a valiant, and at times ‘unsportsmanlike,’ resistance to the institution that facilitated his ascension to office of Prime Minister.
Khan has popular support, but few allies in the corridors of power in Rawalpindi. Now he wants to stuff the jails with his supporters
The attacks on General Bajwa continue, and his supporters have not relented from name-calling a serving Major General of the ISI. But in recent weeks, Khan has toned down his rhetoric, in the vain hope that the tide may turn in his favor.
A key flaw with Khan’s strategy is that he has used all his cards in haste. Whether it was the Long March, resignations from the National Assembly, or more recently dissolving the Punjab and KP assemblies, Khan exhausted all the leverage he had over the system. Consequently, he has popular support, but few allies in the corridors of power in Rawalpindi. Now he wants to stuff the jails with his supporters. His critics say that he is still trying to escape his own arrest, an eventuality that appears to be drawing ever closer, at least as a threat.
Will this encirclement of Khan and his party benefit his opponents? In ordinary circumstances it may have been a boon for the ruling coalition, especially the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). However, given the inflationary cycle that is going to become even more acute in the months to come, chopping off Khan’s power will not directly result in any big victory for PML-N. In fact, pundits have already calculated that if fair elections were held tomorrow, PTI would make genuine gains without the support of the ISI and other systemic instruments that ensured its victory in 2018. But some sources argue that the plan is different.
The next six weeks will be important, and verdicts to disqualify Khan—or otherwise—will set the tone and the future direction of the country’s politics.
A fractured parliament is the logical outcome of elections to be held later this year. The other issue is the holding of elections in two provinces in April of this year, which the government will try to delay until the general elections due in October. Whether the courts will agree with the reasons furnished for the delay, or not, also remains a moot point. Therefore, the next six weeks will be important, and verdicts to disqualify Khan—or otherwise—will set the tone and the future direction of the country’s politics. It will also clarify whether a true ‘level playing field’ exists for all players who intend to participate in the coming elections, or not.
A fractured parliament is the logical outcome of elections to be held later this year.
Amid all the uncertainty, the miltablishment must be making its own calculations. They face the twin menace of security threats, in the form of a Taliban-endorsed terror cycle, and the sinking economy and the looming threat of default.
The outgoing COAS had hinted at the cost of meddling in politics and announced that the institution had decided to adhere to constitutional limits. Have lessons from history – especially from the 6-year-long ‘Project Imran Khan’ led by retired generals Bajwa and Faiz – been learnt and corrective steps identified? Or are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes again? We shall soon find out.