Imran’s exit as party head and its political fallout for Pakistan
Imran Khan’s party – Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) – is facing yet another grave legal and political crisis after the country’s election commission refused to accept the results of the intra-party election which was reportedly held in June 2022 – about a year after they had become due. The commission directed the party to hold fresh intra party elections within 20 days.
The key issue here is that if the PTI is unable to hold intra party elections within the prescribed time limit (chances are negligible) or the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) once again refuses to accept the PTI’s intra-party election, the party will not be entitled to have a common election symbol for its candidates in the forthcoming election and voters will have no way of identifying party candidates who will have different election symbols on the ballot papers. This, if it turns out to be the case in reality, may be a major blow for the party and may cost the party the coming election.
One major step the party has taken toward holding an election acceptable to ECP is the withdrawal of Imran Khan as a candidate to contest the election for party chairmanship. Since he was convicted for concealing details of money earned by selling expensive state gifts received by him as Prime Minister, he was disqualified from contesting an election for public office. By extension, this also disqualified Khan from holding an office in his party too and hence his withdrawal from the intra party contest.
If Imran Khan’s disqualification is confirmed, many voters may take it as a signal that his party will not be allowed to come into power and convince fence-sitters to vote for other parties.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
Khan has handpicked his possible successor, Gohar Khan, who is a relative newcomer in the party. In all likelihood, Gohar Khan, being a nominee of Imran Khan, will be able to easily win the election. The real risk however, is that ECP may not accept the new intra party election either, on one legal pretext or the other.
Irrespective of the fate of the intra party election, the question arises regarding Khan’s decision to step aside and let another person become party chairman. How will this impact Pakistani politics in general and the popularity of PTI?
Sadly, Pakistan has experienced similar cases in the past as well when popular leaders were removed from the scene and someone else had to assume leadership at least in the interim. Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was practically disqualified to contest the election in 2002 under the watch of then President General Pervez Musharraf. Bhutto had to create a new party, PPP-Parliamentarians, and appointed her close associate Makhdum Amin Faheem as its chairman. Apparently, this arrangement could not dent the popularity of Bhutto and her party because everyone knew that PPPP represented Bhutto.
The party won the 2008 election and Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari, became President of Pakistan because Benazir was assassinated.
Similarly, Nawaz Sharif was disqualified as Prime Minister and President of PML-N in 2017 but he nominated his brother Shehbaz Sharif as party president. Although Sharif did not have any formal position in the government, all major decisions of the party were taken with his consent. When Shehbaz Sharif became PM after a vote of no confidence was passed against Khan, he sought endorsement by Nawaz Sharif before taking any major government decisions.
Imran Khan stepping aside will therefore only marginally affect the PTI’s popularity. However, there may be other factors such as depriving the party of its election symbol and obstacles in the way of running an effective election campaign which may seriously hurt the party. If Imran Khan’s disqualification is confirmed by the top court and he is unable to be a candidate in the general election, many voters may take it as a signal that his party will not be allowed to come into power and convince fence-sitters to vote for other parties.
– Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.