South Asia

Pakistan: Ousted PM Imran Khan Seeks to Turn Provincial By-Elections Win Into a National Comeback

Running a super-charged campaign, Khan was able to turn what otherwise would have been a mundane provincial electoral affair into a referendum of sorts over his ouster from the high office.

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Just over three months after his ouster through a no-confidence as Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) has scored a thumping victory in by-elections in the country’s most populous province, Punjab.

The coalition ruling at the centre and in Punjab was routed in 15 out of 20 provincial assembly seats that had fallen vacant after the courts – literally rewriting the constitution – disqualified the PTI members for defecting.

While the PTI was defending the seats it had either won originally or those in which the winning independent candidates had joined the party, the polls were widely seen as a political stress test for the Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who rules through a flimsy majority in the National Assembly (NA), and his son, Hamza Shehbaz Sharif, whose provincial government also hangs by a thread.

The ruling coalition is comprised of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which includes Shehbaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and the smaller Baloch and Pashtun nationalist parties, and is supported by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). However, the by-polls were truly a face-off between the PTI and the PML-N in its traditional bastion. And as goes Punjab – with more than half the general seats in the NA – so goes the nation.

Running a super-charged campaign, Khan was able to turn what otherwise would have been a mundane provincial electoral affair into a referendum of sorts over his ouster from the high office. Proving pundits and his detractors – myself included – wrong, Khan instantly went on a dogged offensive after the no-confidence move against him, which also had a nod from the powerful Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Qamar Javed Bajwa, succeeded in April.

Khan detested that his former benefactor, General Bajwa, had decided to change the horses midstream when the traditionalists in the brass felt that their hybrid regime project had turned into an economic disaster. The PTI chief trained his political guns on the COAS, alluding to him and the generals siding with him as the present-day Mir Jafar and Mir Sadiq, the generals who had betrayed Siraj-ud-Daula and Tipu Sultan, respectively, and colluded with the British colonial armies.

He later denied it, but the point had gone across. Khan weaved a fanciful theory that the US had sought his ouster and commissioned these generals to do the hatchet job. He lied through his teeth but did it with a relentless consistency, and his followers bought it hook, line and sinker.

Khan castigated the judiciary which had, for once, adjudicated a case on merits and declared his and his partisan NA speaker’s action as unconstitutional and allowed the no-confidence vote against him to go through. He assailed – even after the by-polls win – the country’s Election Commission, which for the past several years has been hearing a foreign funding case against the PTI, an unfavourable decision in which could lead to severe censure.

Also read: Pakistan: Imran Khan Warns of Civil War if Elections Not Called

Fond of cricket analogies from his prime as a devastating pacer, Khan seemed to be tactically following a political version of the 1933 Bodyline Series, when the English fast bowlers had targeted the corpus of their Australian opponents, instead of stumps, with ruthless deliveries. Khan has made Shehbaz Sharif look almost irrelevant. He seemed to have rightly concluded that the incumbent Prime Minister was relying more on the goodwill of the army establishment to hold his coalition together than will of the people, and therefore, planned his offensive to undermine that support.

The PTI’s social media teams and common partisans have been consistently dragging General Bajwa over the coals. But what’s really incredible is that Khan and his followers have gotten away with all of that without as much as a rap on the knuckles. The more he attacked the military and judicial establishment, the more defensive they became.

Khan has known all along that the army’s thuggery is carefully calibrated; it hounds the weak, tolerates the strong and caves in to the powerful, especially if they are from the Punjab province. But in this instance, there is a lot more at play than meets the eye. Khan has powerful backers within the junta who weren’t terribly pleased with the traditionalists ditching him. 

This adventurist lot comprises of both true believers suffering a self-inflicted, modern-day caliphate-seeking complex, as well as opportunists like the former Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI), Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry, who seeks to become the army chief when General Bajwa steps down this November.

The army quite literally became the prisoner of its own narrative. It has been peddling for decades that the conventional politicians are crooks who plunder Pakistan and stash the loot abroad, and only a charismatic and ostensibly honest and patriotic strongman like Khan could put an end to it.

The smearing of politicians and depoliticisation of the masses which had started under General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq and went on in earnest during General Pervez Musharraf, had developed deep roots within the army. The officer class’s disdain for the politicians and, in fact, universal suffrage, is shared by the army families and also many middle-class civilians, including the judicial establishment.

General Bajwa’s decision to can Khan has been a hard sell within the army, and he faced criticism from the officers at several forums. He simply could not tell the officers and cadres that the potion they had been consistently fed is poison. The groundswell support that Khan enjoys within the army has made him virtually untouchable; against whom the top brass could not retaliate.

Pakistan Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa at a ceremony in Rawalpindi. Photo: Reuters.

Those of us who had forecasted that after his ouster, Khan would wail and flail but may not be able to mount a cohesive campaign, had counted on the Pakistan army acting in unison and general staff standing firmly behind the chief. But clearly, there are more moving parts than one had accounted for.

Also read: Here’s How Every Former Pakistan PM Was Shunted Out of Power

Pakistan army, historically being a highly disciplined outfit, has not tolerated insubordination in the past, but there’s clearly a hesitancy now to restrain the dissent within, lest the lid blows. While the serving generals are usually not heard from, many retired ones wear their love for Khan on their sleeve. One such man is the former DG ISI, Lieutenant General (R) Zaheer-ul-Islam, who not only actively campaigned for a PTI candidate in his home constituency, but also didn’t mince any words and described PTI for what it is – the army’s project to upend the PPP and PML-N politics.

The PML-N leadership has charged General Islam with orchestrating Khan’s 2014 dharna sit-in agitation to topple the then PM Nawaz Sharif’s government. 

In this go round though, Khan relied not just on the tacit support from the serving and retired officers, but played shrewd constituency-level politics as well. He picked candidates who have a strong personal/family vote bank, personally rallied his cadres, skillfully used the conventional and social media to drive his message home, and eventually mobilised the voters on the election day.

An almost 50% turnout in by-elections, where voters traditionally don’t exactly show up in droves, and the convincing victory margins, point to the robust electoral machine Khan had set in motion. He thrashed the incumbent government for skyrocketing inflation, especially food and oil prices, and a rupee plunging against the US dollar, eroding the purchasing power of the people. Never mind that it was Khan who, sensing his imminent ouster, had kept the gasoline prices artificially low by reneging a on commitment made to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), thus booby-trapping the incoming Shehbaz Sharif government.

Khan also tied Shehbaz Sharif to General Bajwa and the imaginary US conspiracy to oust him, thereby portraying him as a pawn of the Pakistani and international establishments. He was careful though to target only some generals by using euphemisms like “neutrals” and “Mr. X and Y”. Khan has carefully avoided criticising the near-complete control that army as an enterprise has exercised over the country’s politics, leaving himself with a lot of wiggle room to make up.

In fact, his whole campaign has been all about his own restoration as the army’s chosen man and to enable him to hound and destroy his political opponents on unproven allegations of corruption. The irony, however, is that his strategy and tactics seem to be working and his narrative, gelling together. 

Shehbaz Sharif, on the other hand, is clearly out of his political depth, as was suspected at the time of his inauguration. Unlike his elder brother, Nawaz Sharif, and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, he is neither a crowd-puller in Punjab nor has any appeal as a national leader outside his home province.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Photo: Facebook

Shehbaz Sharif had built his brand as an able administrator and go-getter chief minister of Punjab. But he not only has nothing to show for his performance so early in his tenure, but also hasn’t spelled out any great plans for the future. If he thought that Khan would let him rule and deliver without throwing a wrench in the system at every chance he can, Shehbaz Sharif was mistaken. He seems to have miscalculated that Khan would unleash a political uncertainty that would make the already herculean task of economic recovery, nearly impossible.

Pakistan remains at the brink of an economic default and the rupee is in freefall despite the Shehbaz Sharif government securing a staff-level agreement with the IMF. One of the factors at play is the IMF seeking to ensure that Pakistan will be able to bridge a $4 billion funding gap by securing funds from Saudi Arabia. Saudis, on their part, had set strict conditions, including Pakistan securing and complying with an IMF deal.

Historically, the funding gap has been closed by securing funds from the UAE and China, in addition to Saudi Arabia but none of that now comes readily or on easy terms, thanks to political chaos in Pakistan. When a country is looking at finding $42 billion in a year for debt servicing and foreign exchange payments on oil, food essentials and medicine, delays in the IMF tranche and Saudi funding don’t exactly inspire confidence in the local markets or foreign investors. And this is a predicament that Shehbaz Sharif walked into knowingly.

His elder brother and three-time former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, was stone cold to the idea of ousting Khan through a vote of no-confidence and then cleaning up the economic mess left behind by him and his army benefactors. Shehbaz Sharif, on the other hand, was desperate and saw it as his only chance to get into the high office.

Nawaz Sharif and his daughter had also built, at great personal peril, a robust pro-democracy narrative, calling for the army to honour the people’s mandate and stay out of politics. But owing to the party and perhaps family dynamics, and against his better political judgement, the elder Sharif acquiesced. The net result so far has been that the PML-N has squandered most, if not all, of the political capital by hobnobbing with and relying on General Bajwa.

Also read: Is There a Pakistan Beyond the Hybrid Regime?

Shehbaz Sharif has virtually nothing to show for an economic recovery at the 100-day mark of his government and will likely have little in the near future. His government’s record on the resurgence of terrorism in Pashtun regions and the army’s dirty war in Balochistan remains abysmal and rightly drew flak from his allies from those areas, in a recent meeting. While he along with his main allies, the PPP and JUI, struck a defiant note and pledged to complete the term of the current NA, he is beholden to the army for keeping the coalition afloat through groups like the MQM. 

On the flip side, Khan has amassed a ton of political capital that he rightly intends to use in the contest for the Punjab government, slotted for July 22. The election for the chief minister of the largest province has already been tainted by allegations and counter-allegations of both sides trying to buy off members. If the coalition gets to retain the government in Lahore, it might get a few weeks reprieve. But in that case, Khan is likely to take the matter to the courts, where he has been already received a slew of favourable judgements.

If the PTI prevails, Imran Khan is likely to use the government there, along with his already stable dispensation in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, to apply a pincer to the coalition’s neck in Islamabad to extract fresh general elections. He would not hesitate to mobilise the street in a replay of his previous long marches on the federal capital. But whether or not he actually gets his wish to have the snap polls depends a lot on what kind of assurances General Bajwa gets or gives.

The bad blood between the former benefactor-protégé is not exactly hidden anymore. The army, however, has stood even by the chiefs who exited the office in ignominy, like Generals Yahya Khan and Pervez Musharraf. Even the adventurists would have a difficult time letting General Bajwa be put on the chopping block before or after his tenure ends.

An unrelenting Khan, however, has merged his bogus national narrative into the local politics with great success and clearly intends to use the local victories thus secured to propel his national campaign. In general, energising the base and eliciting strong turnouts would be considered conducive to democracy. But imbued with a messiah complex, Khan seeks one-man rule for himself, where anyone and everyone disagreeing with him is ostracised.

When a narcissist politician is able to pull that off on a flawed and false premise, it actually bodes ill for pluralism and democratic values. Whether the PML-N is able to stymie the rising Imran Khan tide would depend on how and from where Nawaz Sharif plans to lead his party.

Shehbaz Sharif, no matter how able an administrator he may have been, is not cut out for national politics and is clearly no match for an opponent baying for political blood. For now, however, political chaos and economic turmoil is the name of the game in Pakistan. 

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets at @mazdaki.