Is it the end of the road for Imran Khan?
The limits of populism are very much evident by the crumbling of the party led by former prime minister Imran Khan in the face of state repression. Arguably the most powerful political force in the country, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is now facing an existentialist threat with the mass exit of senior party leadership under pressure. Several thousand PTI supporters have been detained in the clampdown.
It has been a remarkable turn of fate for the party that was riding high on the popularity wave just a few weeks ago. The events of the past few weeks have changed Pakistan’s political landscape. The looming threat of the complete disintegration of the party has also narrowed Imran Khan’s political options.
Khan may be out on bail but the noose is tightening around him. Implicated in scores of cases ranging from corruption to terrorism, he is facing possible disqualification. Is it the end of the road for the charismatic former cricketing hero turned politician? It may not yet be the endgame with his mass support base still intact.
But Khan is certainly fighting the most critical battle of his checkered political career spanning a quarter of a century. His political fortunes depend on how long he can defy the powerful military establishment’s pressure. What is happening with the PTI now is not unfamiliar to Pakistan’s treacherous power politics.
Other mainstream political parties too have gone through the mill, facing state repression in the past. But they survived. It remains to be seen whether the PTI can come out of this crisis and maintain its position as a major player in the power game.
By taking on the military directly, the party crossed the Rubicon. Although the battle lines had long been drawn, the May 9 incident was seen as a turning point in the battle.
Since being ousted from power more than a year ago through a vote of no confidence, Khan is at war with the military leadership who he accuses of plotting his government’s downfall. The confrontation came to a head when his enraged supporters went on a rampage, paralyzing life in all major cities in the aftermath of his short detention on May 9. Military installations were the main target of the attacks.
By taking on the military directly, the party crossed the Rubicon. Although the battle lines had long been drawn, the May 9 incident was seen as a turning point in the battle. The pre-planned attacks on the General Head Quarters in Rawalpindi and ransacking of the official residence of the top regional army commander in Lahore led to the security agencies launching a clampdown on PTI supporters not witnessed in recent times.
There have also been reports of brutal violations of human rights. There are reports of scores of forced disappearances; even journalists are not being spared. Social media and internet services have been facing intermittent closure. Even those senior members who haven’t left the party are being compelled to denounce the violence.
Imran Khan, too, after resisting for days, finally condemned the attacks on military installations. But it has not helped ease the stand-off. The establishment is not willing to forget what has happened and the army has termed the events of May 9 a “dark chapter” in the country’s history. A massive media campaign has also been launched, increasing the pressure on the PTI.
The widespread violence, particularly the vandalising of memorials of martyred soldiers, has provoked an intense public reaction, especially in the Punjab heartland which is also the main recruiting center for security forces. May 9 has changed the situation, making it extremely hard for the PTI leadership to support the anti-establishment narrative whipped up by Imran Khan.
Hence, it’s not surprising that most defections from the party have come from Punjab though state oppression has also allegedly forced many to quit. It has brought Khan under huge pressure, compelling him to step back from his hardline confrontationist policy. Amid the clampdown and exodus of senior party leaders, the former prime minister has called for talks to resolve the present political crisis. His appeal mainly addresses military leadership.
It has come as a sharp departure from his earlier position of not talking to the ruling coalition. But his offer for reconciliation seems to have come too late. His taking on simultaneously, rival political forces and the establishment, has cost him dearly. He miscalculated that a show of street power could force the establishment to step back. But his brinkmanship has failed.
With his party facing disintegration and sword disqualification hanging over his head, he is left in dire straits. His popular support base may also diminish if he is removed from the electoral field. The maverick leader is fighting the most critical battle of his career to keep himself politically relevant.
- Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain