FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 49

Level playing field set before elections?

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s worst fear has come true and he has been disqualified for allegedly concealing incomes which he generated from selling gifts received from foreign dignitaries when he was in office. In his own words, his disqualification is a part of a bigger plan to bring back former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and end a lifetime bar on him, so that he could take part in politics. It is said the move aims at providing a “level playing field” to the two leaders. However, the question is whether Nawaz Sharif will still be able to compete with the PTI chairman, whose popularity has reached new peaks recently.

The Election Commission of Pakistan’s decision to disqualify Imran Khan will ultimately be decided by courts. The process will take months. However, people close to the former Prime Minister believe the ECP judgement aimed at discrediting him ahead of the general election. His alleged corruption and irregularities in Toshakhan and alleged foreign funding cases will remain the topic of TV talk shows and make newspaper headlines, so that his image is tarnished and the public perception about him is changed, they allege. However, it is a fact that he is the most popular leader of Pakistan and recent by-polls proved it. The government had carefully selected the constituencies, where votes of the ruling alliance were more than double PTI votes in the last election. However, Imran Khan single-handedly won all by-polls except one. It was really embarrassing for the ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) parties. Imran Khan won six seats and lost only in Karachi.

It was also unprecedented for a leader in Pakistan to win from six National Assembly constituencies. His wins in three provinces, Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, show he is the only national level leader in the country. He won National Assembly seats from Mardan, Charsadda and Peshawar in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Faisalabad and Nankana Sahib in Punjab and the Korangi district of Karachi in Sindh. The PPP won in Multan, Punjab, and Malir district of Karachi. Besides, by-polls were also held on three seats of the Punjab Assembly previously held by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). According to the results, the PTI emerged victorious on two seats, while the PML-N retained one.

Besides the PTI, the results were encouraging for the PPP, which won two National Assembly seats, one from Karachi and the other from Multan, where Imran Khan was not contesting the election and former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s daughter was a candidate of the party. The results are really embarrassing for Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party. It won only one Punjab Assembly constituency. It appears it has lost its home province to the PTI.

As was widely expected, Imran Khan was disqualified a few days after his landslide victory in the by-elections. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) disqualified him under Article 63(1)(p). It unanimously decided that he had misled officials about gifts he had received from foreign dignitaries during his tenure. The written ruling read that the PTI chief had “intentionally and deliberately” violated the provisions contained in Sections 137, 167 and 173 of the Elections Act, 2017 as he submitted a “false statement” and “incorrect declaration” to the ECP in the details of his assets and liabilities filed by him for the year 2020-21. It added that the PTI chief had attracted disqualification under Article 63(1)(p) of the Constitution read with Sections 137 and 173 of the Elections Act, 2017. “Consequently, he ceases to be a Member of the National Assembly of Pakistan and his seat has become vacant accordingly. As Imran Khan had made false statements and an incorrect declaration, therefore, he also committed the “offence of corrupt practices” defined under Sections 167 and 173 of the Elections Act, 2017, punishable under Section 174 of the Elections Act, 2017,” it noted.

The commission also ordered the initiation of criminal proceedings against the ex-premier for submitting a false statement under Section 190(2) of the Elections Act. The former Prime Minister has challenged the verdict in the Islamabad High Court and he is confident about a favorable verdict. The reference had been moved by the government for not “sharing the details” of Toshakhana gifts and proceeds from their sale. In his reply, Imran Khan admitted to having sold at least four gifts. He said he and his wife had received over 58 gifts from August 1, 2018, to December 31, 2021. Of the gifts, only 14 cost over Rs30,000 and he had purchased them from the Toshakhana while following the due process. According to the reply, he had purchased four Toshakhana gifts at Rs21.56 million. He also clarified that he had disclosed more than Rs5.8 million worth of the sold gifts in his assets.

It appears that efforts are underway to harm Imran Khan’s popularity through Toshakhana and alleged foreign funding cases ahead of the general election. He is being portrayed as a “corrupt” leader, like the rest of top leaders of Pakistan. So far, all such efforts have failed. However, the latest efforts show suspicions are being created about his credibility among the public and it will be difficult for him to maintain the graph of his popularity in the coming weeks as cases against him would be heard by courts and his alleged corruption would be highlighted by the electronic and print media.

In fact, efforts to malign his image had started soon after his removal from office in May, but people are not willing to believe that he is corrupt, like most top leaders of the country. It appears the new efforts to hurt him will also fail.