Imran Khan’s Misstep

by Ahmed Humayun

Imran-khan-niazi1The 2013 elections in Pakistan gained the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) the government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province as well as the third most prominent position in parliament. This striking success was a vindication of Imran Khan, PTI's leader, who had struggled for many years to break into a sclerotic system dominated by autocratic political parties organized around familial and financial interests.

But the results were a crushing disappointment for Khan and many of his supporters who became convinced that the elections had been rigged against them. Over the last several weeks, the country has become embroiled in a severe political crisis in which Khan and some of his followers are staging protests in Islamabad against last year's election results and the current government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the head of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).

Some of Khan's arguments deserve to be taken seriously. There are undoubtedly deep flaws in an electoral system that is still nascent. Last year was the first time, after all, that one elected regime transferred power to another in Pakistan's history. To the extent that the PTI has elevated the issue of improving electoral accountability in the country's national debate, it deserves credit. Yet Khan has advanced a series of improbable, evidence-free conspiracy theories that have muddied rather than clarified the debate. Worse, by intriguing to overthrow Sharif's regime, he has damaged Pakistan's fragile democracy.

Khan's allegation that ‘rigging' took place is almost certainly true, but the assertion that a host of Pakistani institutions connived to rig elections in Sharif's favor is almost certainly false. Here are just a few reasons to be skeptical of Khan's sweeping claims. First, while claims about a stolen election have been asserted with great certitude, no evidence for a vast conspiracy has been provided. Khan has leveled highly specific allegations, incriminating the Chief Justice, the head of the election commission, and various others, without any proof. Second, consider the sheer improbability that some 70,000 polling stations, where perhaps 600,000 people worked, under the direction of a cabal consisting of the election commission, the superior judiciary, and Nawaz Sharif, worked in unison to deliver a result adverse to Khan. Third, at the time of the elections, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was in power and oversaw the holding of the elections. If such a vast conspiracy is possible, then why did the PPP suffer a drubbing, and why did it allow its political nemesis, the PML-N, to triumph? Fourth, why is only PTI and not the other political parties—who presumably would be equally suspicious of the adverse election results—protesting? Instead, while happy to see the Sharif government flounder, the parties have stood by the government. Fifth, if the election was stolen by the PML-N in order to prevent PTI's victory, it was done in a rather half-hearted manner – awarding the PTI rule in a province, and making it into the third largest party in the national assembly.

All independent observers, including international monitors, concede the flaws in the 2013 elections but aver that, nonetheless, these were the freest and fairest elections in Pakistani history. This is not a high bar to cross, but it suggests why all of Pakistan's parties accepted the results when they were announced and formed the government.

If Khan had confined himself to raising legitimate concerns about problems in electoral processes, he would be doing Pakistan a favor. Instead, he has consistently insisted on Sharif's resignation. When Sharif refused, some of Khan's supporters and those of another faction, the Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT), armed with sticks, clubs, slingshots, gas masks—even, uniquely, cranes—have laid siege to the capital. In the past few weeks they have stormed institutions such as the parliament and the Pakistan Television Network, beaten up policemen, broken into stores and looted shops, and overall created a sense of chaos. For good measure, Khan has urged Pakistanis to stop paying taxes – this, in a country with one of the world's lowest tax collection rates – and even suggested that the IMF should stop disbursing critical financial assistance. Last week the President of China canceled a scheduled visit, despite being assured by the government that appropriate security would be provided.

To be sure, Khan's resort to violence and intimidation has ample precedent in Pakistani politics—in 1997, Nawaz Sharif's own supporters stormed the Supreme Court, during a conflict over the appointment of new judges to the court. This time, however, appears to be a first for PTI. Of the many ironies in this crisis, not the least of them is that in this case Sharif, from the perspective of the law and of the constitution, is entirely in the right to not cave in to Khan's pressure for his resignation.

Most troubling, however, are growing indications that instead of electoral reforms Khan's agenda all along has been to unseat Sharif, possibly in alliance with the country's security establishment, which has been at loggerheads with the civilian regime over a number of different issues. I, along with others, suspected the possibility as much before the protests began. For one, there was every indication of an attempt by the PTI and its allies in the country's vociferous media to create a perception of widespread chaos, to suggest that the government has lost control—a perception which has often been created in Pakistan to justify some form of intervention by the army. (There were a few days in late August when this almost worked, with reports of meetings of the corps commanders about whether or not to directly intervene). More recently, in a series of explosive revelations, PTI's President, Javed Hashmi, a highly respected figure, has stated that Khan and others advising him have been agitating for the army to intervene, and have even been coordinating their efforts with elements in the intelligence services. When Khan decided to escalate his protest by marching on the parliament, Hashmi tendered his resignation.

Though things are still in flux and nothing can be ruled out, Khan's gambit has been deeply damaged by Hashmi's announcements, and the media narrative has begun turning against him. The army too, fearful of losing its aura of neutrality, will be far more careful about an intervention. There are negotiations underway between PTI and the government that aim to resolve the impasse.

Regardless of the outcome of the talks, however, in either conniving with the security establishment or trying to create a situation where the army would get involved, Khan has joined a long, dishonorable tradition in Pakistani politics, where civilian leaders undercut a sitting government by angling for intervention by the deep state. Many hoped that after a civilian government served out its five years for the first time in Pakistani history, a historic milestone for the troubled democracy had been achieved. These hopes now appear to be misplaced. It is especially unfortunate that the genuine idealism of many of Khan's young supporters – brought into the political process for the first time – has been misdirected towards dubious ends. Instead of electoral malfeasance the real issue has become whether an elected government, whatever its flaws or misdemeanors, can be forced by a few thousand protesters to step down. The fact is that the only alternative to power transitions through elections is power transitions through the mob or the army. The coming days will show Pakistan's choice.