ISLAMABAD: Estranged associates of former Prime Minister Imran Khan came together on Thursday and announced setting up a new political party, the Istihkam-e-Pakistan Party, creating a fresh challenge for the embattled ex-premier amid a widening crackdown.
The announcement of a new party by sugar baron Jahangir Khan Tareen, who was for over a decade Khan’s closest confidant but fell out with him in 2020, will add fuel to the fire of widespread speculation that a ‘king’s party’ was being primed as a viable alternative to Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party is arguably the most popular political party in the country.
In Pakistan, the king’s party is a common euphemism for one favored by the all-powerful military.
Since being ousted from the PM’s office in a no-trust vote in April last year, Khan has launched an unprecedented campaign of defiance against the military, which independent analysts say helped him rise and fall from power.
His tensions with the military reached a crescendo last month when Khan was arrested in a land fraud case on May 9, prompting violent nationwide protests in which rioters attacked an air base, military properties, including the army’s headquarters, and burnt a top general’s home. The military has since said it will punish the enactors and masterminds of the violence, including by trying them in military courts. The government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has threatened to ban Khan’s PTI and dozens of his close associates and party members have announced quitting his party while hundreds of his supporters are under arrest.
“Today we are setting the foundations of a new party, the Istihkam-e-Pakistan Party,” Tareen announced at a press conference in which he appeared with some of Khan’s closest ex-aides, including Ali Haider Zaidi, Aleem Khan, Imran Ismail and Tanveer Ilyas.
“We have all gathered here today because we want to make a serious effort together to get Pakistan out of this quicksand of difficulties.”
Tareen, who was widely known as one of the main financiers of Khan’s party and seen as instrumental to his rise to the PM’s office in 2018, said he had joined the PTI to bring promised reforms to Pakistan.
“I was sure we would be able to use the platform of this [PTI] party to bring those reforms that Pakistan always needed and still needs,” Tareen said. “That’s why we worked day and night to make PTI a strong political force. All of the people sitting here were part of that struggle.”
He said people had voted for the PTI in 2018 because it had promised to fix the economy, improve foreign relations and above all, root out corruption and carry out accountability.
“But things did not go on as we had planned and people started to feel disillusioned,” Tareen said.
“Pakistan today needs a political leadership that eliminates social and political divisions. Our nation needs hope … our politics need a new face.”
Speaking about the violence that took place after Khan’s arrest on May 9, Tareen said it was his belief that Pakistan would plunge into chaos if those behind the actions were not punished.
In a strongly-worded statement released on Wednesday and seen as a reference to Khan, the army said it was time to tighten the “noose of law” against those who had masterminded the attacks of May 9.
In recent days, Khan has openly accused the military of trying to destroy his party, saying he has “no doubt” he will be tried in a military court and jailed as part of the army-backed crackdown on his party.
Responding for the first time to widespread accusations that the army was behind a crackdown against Khan, his party and its supporters and carrying out human rights violations, the military on Wednesday called this “fake news and propaganda” that it would defeat with the support of the Pakistani public:
“Unfounded and baseless allegations on Law Enforcement Agencies and Security Forces for custodial torture, human rights abuses and stifling of political activities are meant to mislead the people and malign Armed Forces in order to achieve trivial vested political interests.”