Imran Khan
Pakistan's electoral outcome shows the limitations of orchestrated manipulations against the will of a people. It is also a slap for the military and Nawaz Sharif | File photo of Imran Khan

Despite a remarkable ton, PTI won’t be allowed to rule Pakistan

Who will form the government and how many parties will gang up is a million dollar question but the army won't allow PTI shadow to cloud government formation

They took away his ‘bat’ but Imran Khan, despite being in jail since August last year, still scored a fascinating century — well, almost — in Pakistan’s general elections whose biggest loser has been the country’s notorious military-intelligence establishment. But come what may, there is no way the military will allow the 97 Independents who won with the backing of Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party anywhere near the corridors of power.

With the results for all 264 parliamentary seats declared on Sunday (February 11), PTI-supported Independents, fighting the elections against all odds and without a common election symbol, came up with an incredible sweep that stunned both its political foes and the military which ensured Imran’s ouster from power in April 2022.

Shackling Imran

The cricketer-turned-politician was eventually arrested in August last year as a biased establishment, with the backing of the military, Pakistan’s parallel state, piled on charges of treason on Imran. Just before the elections on February 8, more criminal complaints were filed against him, and even his wedding with Bushra Bibi was declared invalid.

The PTI, no doubt, suffered major setbacks in the wake of an orchestrated military crackdown. Several notable figures in the party either quit politics under intense pressure or parted ways with Imran after reading out condemnation of the man that looked to have been dictated by the military bosses. Scores of its leaders and supporters were jailed on both real and trumped up charges, virtually outlawing the PTI for all practical purposes and intent.

Nawaz’s confidence

But as Pakistan, now in the throes of one of the worst economic crisis, inched towards the elections, it became clear that the PTI still enjoyed vast support — just how much no one could make out accurately. Predictably, three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who left Pakistan four years ago after being enveloped in corruption charges, returned with the military’s backing to lead his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) into the electoral battle, full of confidence that he would score an easy, if not a cakewalk, victory.

But the millions who voted in Pakistan despite widespread fears of vote rigging ended up throwing up a verdict that no one, including those in power and the business class, could have anticipated. True, Sharif’s PML(N) finished as the single largest party bagging 76 seats but that was only because the PTI was not allowed to contest as a political party with its recognized and widely known election symbol, a cricket bat.

Bow to military

Not just that, many Independent candidates who were backed by the PTI were not allowed to campaign. They also suffered from meagre economic resources compared to the PML(N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of the Bhutto family. Some PTI-supported Independent candidates remained in prison. The authorities, using sections of the judiciary, continued to shame Imran in every manner possible in the run-up to the vote to ensure a PTI whitewash.

The opposite happened. Independents owing allegiance to Imran won as many as 97 seats (some reports put it at 93) — a whopping figure that is nothing less than a deadly punch from voters to the Pakistani military, which once propped up the PTI leader but later, in keeping with the country’s traditions, dumped him unceremoniously.

Setback to Nawaz

The PTI also claimed that election officials changed the final results in at least 18 parliamentary constituencies, which, if true, could have taken the PTI independents closer to the half-way mark in the National Assembly. The PPP, with its appeal undiminished in Sindh, grabbed 54 seats while 37 went to smaller parties and Independents allied with no political party.

The electoral outcome shows the limitations of orchestrated electoral manipulations against the will of a people. It is also a slap for Nawaz Sharif who, like a feudal lord, wanted to rule Pakistan again after being in exile for four years following the Panama Papers revelations. Despite putting up a brave face, Nawaz sounded dejected when he claimed “victory” in the elections and sought support from others to form a government. His “victory” speech has since come under widespread flak.

Military vs PTI

Who will form the next government and how many parties will gang up to take office is a million dollar question. Two things are clear to any observer of Pakistani politics. One, the military will not allow the PTI shadow to cloud government formation in any form. Two, the military-ISI set-up will put its weight behind the PML(N) and PPP and perhaps use its known tactics to pressure some smaller parties to join hands with them in a desperate bid to provide governance.

Force will also be heaped on PTI-backed Independents to switch sides. Already, one such Independent has declared his support to the PML(N). But a government put together by breaking winners with Imran’s backing will only reinforce the popular impression that this election was an unfair one to begin with and that the establishment is clearly taking sides.

Imran’s ghost

Too bad for the military, Pakistani voters have given a stinging punishment to politico-religious parties, which routinely exhibit street power. The best known among them, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, won just three seats. Once again, Pakistan’s electorate showed their maturity by choosing between parties seen as pro- or anti-establishment, reducing the Islamists to virtual zero.

Whoever forms a government will not be able to ensure political stability. Not only is the country deeply divided politically, but it is battling a major economic crisis, with no visible way out in the long run. Ahead of the elections, the PML(N) and PPP were at each other’s throats; they will be ridiculed if they join hands to share the spoils of the office. But not coming together is also not a choice for them. If PTI-backed independents, whatever their number, occupy the Opposition benches, one can expect plenty of fireworks.

The ghost of Imran Khan will continue to haunt Pakistan and the military — even from behind the prison walls.
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