As the courts sentenced the former Pakistan PM to decades in jail, everyone had written off his political career—and his party whose leaders were either in hiding or arrested. No one was expecting his supporters to score the greatest number of seats in the national elections. Now it’s game on in the battle against the powerful Pakistani military.
Wait, isn’t Imran Khan in jail?
Yes, yes. And here’s a quick-ish kahani of how he ended up there.
The dastardly dethronement: In March 2022, the opposition parties came together to pass a no-confidence motion against then Prime Minister Khan. He had lost favour with the military—which had rigged the 2018 elections to install their blue-eyed boy in power. Khan had been ruling with a coalition of smaller parties—until the democratic coup in Parliament. The chief conspirators: coalition of the Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN)—led by former PM Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shehbaz—and Bilawal Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party.
Important to know: The military decided to get rid of Khan because of three key reasons:
- Khan was manoeuvring to anoint Inter-Services Intelligence chief Faiz Hameed as the next Chief of Army Staff—a big no-no: “[T]he Pakistan army gets to pick favourites among the civilians; it doesn’t allow civilians to pick their favourite generals.
- He put all his eggs in the Chinese basket—and became stridently opposed to the US and its Western allies. The Army did not appreciate that kind of risky behaviour—since Pakistan desperately needed an IMF loan—which requires Washington’s blessings.
- Rising economic woes fueled popular anger not just at Khan but also his army patrons—which the Opposition jumped on with glee. This was most inconvenient for the generals who prefer to pull strings behind the scenes.
Raising the stakes: After his ouster, Khan openly accused the US of orchestrating the no-confidence motion that evicted him. His rhetoric got a big boost in November, 2022—when someone tried to assassinate him at an election rally. Khan accused Prime Minister Sharif and the head of counterintelligence at ISI Major General Faisal Naseer for orchestrating the attack. Popular support for Khan ballooned even further—seriously spooking Sharif’s caretaker government—and the military establishment.
The first arrest: Khan was first arrested in May 2023 on corruption charges. At the time, opinion polls gave him 61% approval—25 points ahead of his two closest rivals. Widespread protests rocked the country—and included unprecedented attacks on military establishments. One reason generals did not impose martial law: the IMF bailout package is predicated on maintaining some facade of democracy. In any case, the Supreme Court declared the arrest illegal—and Khan was free to go.
Back behind bars: Within a couple of months, Khan was back in prison—this time for good. He was found guilty of “corrupt practices”—and sentenced to three years. More importantly, he was banned from contesting elections for the next five years—and he could not regain his post as chairman of his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
A scorched earth campaign: The military was also determined to decimate PTI. Key leaders were either arrested—or threatened with criminal charges. As were their family members. In fear, hundreds of senior and mid-level party officials—including two former chief ministers, a former governor and several former cabinet ministers—quit the party.
Jail sentences galore: Not content with a single guilty verdict, Khan was convicted in two other cases in January. The first case involved charges of leaking state secrets—and earned him a 10-year prison sentence. In the second, Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi were found guilty in a case related to the illegal sale of state gifts—which carried an additional 14 years. Both of them were also convicted for seven more years for their alleged “illegal marriage.” In all, Khan was sentenced to a total of 34 years in prison after being convicted in four separate cases.
The fallout: On the eve of the national elections—held on February 8—Khan seemed entirely vanquished. Everyone expected Nawaz Sharif—rehabilitated and returned from exile—to be installed as the next prime minister with the Army’s blessings, of course.
And that didn’t happen? How did he win from jail?
The great upset: The near-impossible happened. Independent candidates supported by PTI won 93 seats—out of a total of 266 that are decided by direct election. Or as many commentators put it, they took away Khan’s bat—but he still “scored almost a century.” The favourite Nawaz Sharif's PMLN managed just 73—and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari's PPP won 54 seats. Point to note: Even so, all parties are short of the majority mark of 134.
The real miracle: is that the party managed this feat despite facing a de facto ban. After arresting thousands of leaders and workers, the Election Commission blocked PTI from using its symbol—a cricket bat:
[I]t meant that each PTI candidate in effect would have to contest with a different symbol—and without the party’s name—in effect like independent candidates. With a literacy rate of less than 60% in the entire country, symbols or pictorial identifiers remain the most important markers for the public to identify the candidate or their party of choice.
The great tech jugaad: PTI used impressive tech jugaad to outsmart the establishment. Its supporters used AI to generate a clip of Khan addressing his supporters in an online rally—reaching millions of supporters. You can watch it below:
The internet—social media and WhatsApp—was critical in reaching Khan’s primary base: young people:
We have seen PTI make politics more accessible through virtual jalsas, AI audios, and chatbots. This has not only helped them circumvent censorship but also engage youth, including those who are from rural or periurban parts of the country.
Most importantly: They found a way to help voters find PTI on the ballot—despite the missing party symbol:
Within a night our team came up with the idea of setting up a portal online where users can enter in the constituency number and they would receive the name of the candidate, and their symbol.
An Election Day blockade: The tactics used to control the outcome on the day of voting were nothing short of shameful:
[A] nationwide suspension of cellphone networks on Thursday hindered party officials from informing supporters of their preferred independent candidate for each constituency. (The government claimed the blackout was for security reasons despite such measures being deemed illegal by Pakistan’s High Court.) In addition, exit polls were banned and the PTI complained that their agents were barred from monitoring polling stations. “The amount of rigging going on is beyond ridiculous,” Zulfi Bukhari, a former Minister of State under Khan, tells TIME.
A suspicious delay: The announcement of election results were suspiciously delayed by 10 hours. It was the first sign that Sharif was in trouble. The final result had not been announced even on Friday evening—more than 24 hours after polls closed. The PTI says the delay allowed officials to “rig the count and reduce the number of seats it won.”
So what does this mean? Khan can come back to power?
Ah, perhaps not. Picture abhi baaki hai—and his rivals show no signs of giving up.
A coalition government: Nawaz Sharif has already given what he calls a “victory speech”—declaring PMLN as the largest party in Parliament. He’s moving toward a coalition with Bhutto’s PPP—and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement which secured 17 seats. But that only gives them 127 seats—as per the current count. One assumes they will be able to make up the deficit by gaining the support of some of the smaller parties. If so, we end up with a new version of the caretaker coalition that has been in power since Khan’s ouster.
Another advantage: As independents who did not run as members of a party, Khan’s supporters are not eligible for their share of the 70 seats reserved for women and minorities. These are distributed among parties according to the ratio of seats they have won. Sharif and Bhutto will get their share—but PTI supporters will not.
Resort politics? Much like Indian netas, independent candidates who support PTI may choose to defect. In fact, PMLN leaders claim: “The Independents have contacted us and they will join any party in the next 72 hours as per the Constitution.” Also, the loyalty of the independents is fragile: “There’s no obligation for them to vote along party lines for key appointments.”
A different party? There is already evidence of divisions within independents—who don’t necessarily agree on what to do next. Some want to sit in the Opposition. Better to act as a powerful pressure group—than a weak alliance in the absence of Khan.
The plan is to merge with a smaller party of Khan’s—so the elected candidates are no longer independents. Presumably this also reduces the constant risk of arbitrary defections from a vulnerable group of independents. As one of Khan’s advisors says:
“We will not be aligning with any major party to set up a hodgepodge government in the centre. We have learned from our previous tenure that having a compromised government with allies means being blackmailed daily,” he said.
He further added that he does not believe a government formed via an alliance of other parties would last long. “We intend to merge with a party for the sake of putting all our candidates under one banner, and we will be the strongest opposition this country has ever seen.”
That said, Imran Khan has already claimed victory from prison.
Deadline to note: The independents must declare their intention to join other parties to form a government within three days of the official end of the vote counting. So tik tok, tik tok.
Or fight the bitter fight? Other PTI leaders have declared their intent to take the battle to the courts—and the streets—to stake their claim to a majority. Courts have already been flooded with petitions filed by independent candidates alleging rigging. The party claims that the outcome in at least 18 seats was “falsely changed.” Embarrassingly, these include seats won by Sharif and his daughter Maryam.
The fallout: Whatever happens, the end result is likely to be political chaos. A Sharif-led coalition will not be seen as legitimate by a significant number of Pakistanis—especially the young. They adamantly do not want Nawaz back in power: “90% of young people are with Imran Khan, but they’re scared. We’ve tried Nawaz Sharif three times. It’s time for Pakistan to try out something new.”
And even if Sharif ends up on the gaddi, the powerful cohort of Khan supporters will remain a painful thorn in his side—as will its own allies:
[H]owever the PML-N cobbles this coalition together, its ‘victory’ will be more bitter than sweet. Without the outcome it had hoped for, it is now left to perform that uneasy dance of give and take for political survival. This is certainly not the fantasy Mr Sharif harboured when he returned to Pakistan after four years abroad.
The bottomline: According to an old saying in Pakistan: “The Pakistan Army has never won a war, but never lost an election.” Every vote for Khan was a slap in the face for the military. While the winner may be in doubt, every Pakistani knows who lost. Potential plot mein twist: The Army may just kiss and make up with Khan.
Al Jazeera has the best overview of where we are—and what comes next. Al Jazeera also has a good piece on how Khan supporters used technology—while New York Times looks at the role of social media. The Hindu has the latest on the jockeying to form the government. Indian Express looks at the implications of the outcome—and how things will unfold. The best take on the vote for defiance and hope is this wonderful Dawn editorial.