Where will Imran’s march lead Pakistan’s Politics?

Pakistan’s dethroned Prime Minister Imran Khan is back on the political scene, this time with a crowd of hundreds en route to Islamabad. As Khan envisions the march as his road to political recovery, his actions might have long term implications for Pakistan’s politics.

“Beyond Politics”

Khan has described his massive rally from Lahore to Islamabad as “Haqeeqi Azadi” (Real Freedom) march, fueled by neither politics nor personal interests but by the aim of building a “Riyasat-e-Medina” or the utopian medieval Islamic society and a “free country” where decisions are made in Pakistan “not Washington or London”. The fight, Khan notes, is for “an independent foreign policy”. Describing his ouster as a move orchestrated by the United States hand in glove with the Pakistani political elites, the former cricketer-turned-politician, who is now banned from contesting elections for the next five years over corruption charges, demands “free and fair” snap elections to be immediately held. Spewing bitter remarks on both his successor Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the Chief Election Commissioner, Imran has once again raised serious doubts on the functionality of Pakistan’s democratic institutions.

The bone of contention is the appointment of the next army chief. Advocating the appointment to be based on merit so as to bring in a “patriotic army chief” at a speech in Faisalabad, Khan has accused the two largest parties in the current government, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), for influencing the process and attempting to place their favourable candidate at the military’s top position in order to escape corruption cases, indirectly indicating the crucial role that the military plays in Pakistan’s politics. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chief has also directly logged horns with the military, the most powerful institution in the country which has on and off commanded political authority. Not only has he lifted the curtains off the not-so-secret military-government nexus that operates in Islamabad but has also allegedly  described the incumbent chief General Bajwa as a “traitor” and “Mir Sadiq and Mir Jaffar”, figures from Indian history who backstabbed their masters by siding with the British. Khan has been questioning Bajwa on various issues ranging from seeking American help for an IMF bailout to the custodial  torture of PTI leader Azam Swati and more recently, the alleged “targeted killing” of Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif in Kenya, a critique of the regime and the military.

How damaging has Imran become to the establishment?

While the Pakistani government has described the moves of the former Prime Minister as nothing but shenanigans of yet another ousted leader to “satisfy his ego”, Imran’s comments have been impactful enough to draw both the country’s Intelligence chief  Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum and military spokesperson Lieutenant General Babar Iftikhar to hold a joint press conference, the first in the country’s 75 year history. Dispelling rumours over the involvement of the military in Arshad Sharif’s killing, the two vehemently criticised Imran for lying and doublespeak, claiming that he exploited unconstitutional means to offer General Bajwa a lucrative extension in lieu of saving his government during the political drama which eventually led to his ouster  earlier this year. As the coalition government quickly stepped in the Imran-bashing, Prime Minister Sharif revealed that Khan expressed the desire to be involved in choosing the next army chief, a request which was declined. Imran and his party leaders jumped in the damage control. He has not only lambasted Shehbaz, describing him as a “boot polisher” under the influence of the United States, but has backtracked on his comments claiming that he was quoted out of context and all his comments were in the spirit of “constructive criticism” made by a man ready to ‘live for and die in Pakistan unlike those who criticise the military from London’, taking a jibe at former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Responding to the ISI chief’s remarks, Khan said that he is only holding “silence” for the sake of his country.

Though he cannot be dubbed as a poster child of democracy, Imran’s genuine popularity among the masses cannot be denied. A master of street campaigning , Khan has not sat quietly since his oustal and he seems to be getting his way at it. In the latest rounds of polls held on October 16, Khan’s party won six of the eight parliamentary seats up for grabs, with the same PTI candidates including Imran himself. His long march has been joined by around 10,000  demonstrators, on board hundreds of cars and trucks. Several factors fuel his popularity. A national cricket hero, Khan, who is already a charismatic leader among the urban upper middle classes, holds popularity among the radicals and overseas Pakistanis despite his poor governance record owing to his “khudaari” (self-respect) narrative, as evident by the crowd of thousands who hit the streets in response to his emotive call to ‘save’ Pakistan from foreign influence. Moreover, the reality remains that Imran is a fresh face among the Pakistani political elite family nexus which remains notorious for privileging their own vested interests over letting democracy take root in Islamabad. The defunct state of Pakistan’s democratic institutions that Imran points out too is not hidden from the masses.

Will the Government budge?

It does not seem so. It would be nothing short of a miracle if Imran manages to get the ban on himself lifted, let alone successfully agitate for snap elections. While the tremendous popularity he commands at the moment would have made a return to power a possibility in a functional democracy, it must not be forgotten that political decisions in Pakistan are not made on the streets but behind the heavily guarded closed doors in Islamabad. The United States, Islamabad’s longtime aid provider, has also repeatedly denied allegations of meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs by taking a harsher stance against Imran. His return to power would not fare well for the country’s relations with Washington, a situation the military would do anything to avoid.

Wither Pakistan?

Imran’s acts are set to give a significant turn to the future course of Pakistani politics.

While a short term implication may be  violent eruptions over clashes with police which threaten to further destabilise an economy already in shambles after the tragic floods, a major long term implication might be related to the top brass of the nation.

Imran’s open defiance of the military has emboldened several political forces demanding freedom from the heavy shadow of the military. Anti-military slogans such as “yeh jo dehshatgardi hai, iske peeche vardi hai” (“the uniform is behind the terror”) raised by youth at a conference held in Lahore a week ago and the momentum that anti-miliatry political parties such as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and the Balochistan National Party have been gaining among the young population is hard for the military to overlook. Not just the opposition but the current Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari too has alleged the military of intervening in politics, including asking protesters demanding the release of Pashtun leader Ali Wazir to take their protest to those who had arrested Wazir, indicating the military hand. While such dissent can and is likely to be easily crushed, it threatens to seriously tarnish the image of the military among common Pakistanis.

The whole episode has also revealed the fractions that have developed in the Pakistani military which otherwise appears to be strongly united. Not only have former senior military officers like Lieutenant General Tariq Khan publicly supported Imran despite his comments on the military but the recently appointed head of the XII corps in Balochistan, Lieutenant General Asif Ghafoor posted a black image on his Twitter profile to mourn Arshad Sharif’s death. General Bajwa, a few weeks ahead of his retirement, has announced the promotion of 12 major general rank officers, in what is seen as a move to unite the force. As insignificant as he might be termed, Imran’s march threatens to turn into a larger dissenting voice against the military influence in politics. While damage control is already underway, such sentiments might recuperate in the future.

Another important implication of Imran’s acts might be the continued relevance of the “self respect” discourse in a nation with a long history of foreign meddling, where the  anti-American sentiment might not just become a permanent feature of Pakistan’s political life but also the touchstone against which all future governments might be judged on their patriotism, creating further instability.

While the road back to Premiership might be tough if not entirely absent for Imran, who might at best reach Islamabad and get the ban lifted or at worst, dispersed off  forcefully in the middle; the discourse that he has initiated is bound to heavily influence the development of mass based  politics in Pakistan.

Cherry Hitkari
Cherry Hitkari
Non-resident Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum, Hawaii. Cherry Hitkari is an Advisory Board member of 'Tomorrow's People' at Modern Diplomacy. She holds a Masters in East Asian Studies specialising in Chinese Studies and is currently pursuing an advanced diploma in Chinese language at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India.