Pakistan’s Election Commission has disqualified former prime minister Imran Khan from continuing as a Member of Parliament, holding him guilty of “corrupt practices.” The latter relates to the accusation that he sold off gifts from foreign leaders and concealed the true value of his assets. His party members and legal team said they would appeal in the high court, doubting if the Election Commission had the power to deliver such a verdict. In fact, the case has to go before a trial court and if the disqualification is found valid, Imran could go to prison for three years.
Khan’s supporters contend that the timing of the move is suspicious: it comes in the wake of his winning six by-elections. Earlier in July, his party PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf) had won 15 of 20 by-elections in Punjab which is otherwise considered the backyard of the PML-N and current prime minister Shehbaz Sharif. The PTI plans to organise mass protests across the country in an effort to build sympathy for its leader.
But Sushant Sareen, Pakistan watcher at the ORF think tank, believes too much is being read into Imran Khan’s victories, pointing out that he won in PTI strongholds. “In July, there was a shock factor because no one expected this level of victory so close after Khan’s ouster,” Sareen argues, “but today, these victories mean little because Khan cannot retain these seats as he is still an MP, which means they remain vacant. Also, given that he had ordered his members to resign from Parliament in April, this will not change the political calculus in Pakistan.”
Sareen says that Imran’s gameplan is very clear: he believes elections next year are his best chance of success, and once back in the saddle in Islamabad, he can appoint the army chief of his choice, which will ensure the nation’s most powerful political party remains on his side.
“He had first wanted elections before November as Bajwa is retiring then but that’s not happening, so he’s pushing the agenda that the new government should appoint the army chief post-elections,” Sareen says, adding that, “He will want these elections to happen before March so he can appoint (former ISI head) Faiz Hameed as army chief. Hameed retires in April so Imran and the PTI have to work fast.”
Imran hopes early elections will ensure the momentum stays with him. But the term of the current national assembly ends in August, so logically, elections can only be held in October or November. That is a worry since the party could falter as corruption charges against party members start piling up. Add to that the ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition could introduce a mini-Budget in May or June when sops could help turn the public in favour of them.
Prime Minister Sharif too has his problems. The PDM coalition is on shaky ground given devastating floods that have hit the economy hard. IMF measures are not making things better. The international body has offered $1.17 billion as a bailout but with stiff conditions including cutting energy subsidies – a move that could alienate a population struggling with a depreciating rupee and inflation. Public anger is boiling over, which the PTI would like to tap into.
Tail piece: US President Biden describing Pakistan as “one of the most dangerous nations in the world” because of its nuclear weapons, needs to be seen in context. Sareen says that “Biden had a very cordial meeting with Sharif just over a month ago, so ties are reasonably good. The statement was taken out of context as it spoke about the fact that the country despite being a nuclear weapons power, has no cohesion at the moment with a collapsing economy, terrorism again rearing its head and the military no longer having the command that they once did. In that regard, Biden was simply expressing concerns rather than berating Pakistan.”
Sareen believes that US-Pakistan relations are seeing a minor reset. “The US ambassador’s visit to PoK and calling it ‘Azad Kashmir’ and the sustainment package for its fleet of F-16s are subtle signals to India. The message being, ‘if you have strategic autonomy, so do we.’ Washington will use Pakistan to keep India off balance, a warning that if India does not go along with Washington, it can make things uncomfortable.”