Imran Khan, the former Prime Minister and Chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has been disqualified from contesting any public office and sentenced to imprisonment on charges of corrupt practices by a local court in Islamabad on August 5. The conviction and swift arrest of Imran Khan are poised to reverberate not only across his personal life and his party, PTI, but also Pakistani politics in general, particularly the state of democracy in the nation.
While there’s a chance Imran Khan may secure relief from the Islamabad High Court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan, leading to his release after a few days, this outcome remains uncertain. The charges that led to his disqualification from seeking public office for five years and a three-year prison sentence seem rather insubstantial and frivolous. Khan’s disqualification and imprisonment stem from his alleged failure to declare the proceeds from gifts he received as Prime Minister, which he subsequently purchased and sold. The case of the “Toshakhana” (Gift House) lacks substantial strength to definitively convict him. To be consistent with the constitutional provision of “equality before law,” as enshrined in Article 25 of the 1973 Constitution, similar actions would require the disqualification and imprisonment of all former prime ministers, presidents, and ministers who received gifts from the state repository. However, around 200 cases of different nature, including terrorism, incitement of violence, and corruption, have been filed against Imran Khan by the government of Mian Shehbaz Sharif, involving 13 parties. Therefore, efforts from influential quarters will likely be directed towards keeping Imran Khan incarcerated. The extent of relief provided to him by the judiciary in these cases across the country will significantly impact his fate.
The future of the PTI in the upcoming elections hinges largely on whether Imran Khan’s disqualification and imprisonment persist or are overturned. Should Khan remain in prison during the next elections, this could potentially undermine the PTI’s chances of securing victory. Nevertheless, a high voter turnout might allow the party to triumph despite Khan’s disqualification and imprisonment, owing to his already surging popularity, which was further bolstered post-arrest. The coalition of 13 parties in power and other influential entities inadvertently contributed to his popularity. Following his removal from power through a shadowy no-confidence motion last year, he was considerably unpopular. Had the 13 anti-Khan parties abstained from taking the reins of government and opted for immediate elections, they could have likely secured a majority. Yet, Khan’s popularity surged due to his treatment post-removal, assassination attempts on him, and the poor governance and significant inflation under the 13-party, 16-month administration. Evidently, Khan won an unparalleled eight National Assembly seats in by-elections from all corners of Pakistan in 2022 after his removal. His party also secured 95% of seats in more than 40 Punjab Assembly and National Assembly elections since April 2022. By August, both national and international opinion polls consistently favored PTI’s popularity and prospects in the upcoming elections. This scenario is daunting for rival political parties, particularly Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), prompting some to shy away from elections.
The outcome remains unclear—whether Imran Khan’s continued imprisonment and disqualification would favor him and the PTI, or if overturning these circumstances would be more advantageous. In essence, anti-PTI forces find themselves in a predicament and proverbial catch-22 situation.
While Khan’s arrest and disqualification undeniably elevated his and PTI’s popularity, it remains uncertain if this surge will translate into electoral victory. The present circumstances cast doubt on the fairness of the elections. The larger concern, however, is that preventing the PTI from participating in elections, obstructing people’s voting rights, disrespecting mandates, or allowing their theft would endanger political stability, consequently undermining economic stability as well. Political and economic stability are interdependent and stand as pressing issues in Pakistan.
One option for anti-PTI parties is to avoid holding elections altogether. The recent meeting of the Council of Common Interest (CCI), which approved the latest census results, potentially postpones national elections beyond November 2023. Subsequent elections will be based on the last census, necessitating the reconstitution of constituencies according to new figures. However, there are concerns about the constitutionality of the last CCI meeting, as only elected chief ministers are eligible to participate, whereas caretaker chief ministers from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab attended. The Supreme Court must determine the meeting’s constitutionality. Moreover, as the guardian of the Constitution, can the judiciary allow the Election Commission to surpass the constitutional provision requiring elections within 90 days of a National Assembly dissolution? Delays in elections would not only undermine democracy but also severely compromise the constitution. In fact, the constitution has already been violated by not holding elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab within the stipulated 90 days. These cases are pending, and the Supreme Court directed the government and the ECP to conduct elections in Punjab by July 14. Further delays in the National Assembly elections could inflict irreparable harm on the Constitution. One can only hope for rational decision-making within the corridors of power to preserve the Constitution and democracy.