Pakistan

Imran’s innings

Print edition : August 31, 2018

Imran Khan speaks to the media after casting his vote at a polling station in Islamabad on July 25. Photo: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP

Imran’s supporters celebrating the PTI’s victory in Islamabad on July 25. Photo: K.M. Chaudary/AP

Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf emerges as the single largest party in the National Assembly election, a mandate that is suspected to have been managed by the military establishment.

IMRAN KHAN, who led Pakistan to the 1992 Cricket World Cup victory, is naturally fond of cricketing metaphors. When it was clear that his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party was emerging as the clear leader in the vote count and was poised to form the next government, Imran continued to insist that he was not taking anything for granted. “I am a sportsman who has a training of 21 years on cricket grounds. I do not declare victory till the last ball is bowled,” he said. But within 24 hours, even as the counting was still going on, Imran, in a televised address to the nation, declared victory. It was clear by then that the PTI would become the single largest party with around 110 seats in the 272-seat National Assembly and that, with the support of independents and defectors, it would form the next government. (A majority of 137 seats is needed to form the government.)

The jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML(N), won 63 seats. The main opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), led by Bilawal Bhutto, the son of the slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, won 42. Elections were also held for 500 seats in the four provincial assemblies of Punjab, Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber-Paktunkhawa. In his July 26 speech, Imran, 65, promised to create a “new Pakistan” that would be devoid of corruption, improve relations with China and its regional allies and seek “a mutually beneficial relationship” with the United States. He also said that he wanted to improve relations with India. “If India takes one step towards us, we will take two steps towards them,” he said.

Imran already knew the outcome of this particular electoral match as it was rigged in his favour from the outset. The PPP was not allowed to select its best team and the umpires were far from neutral. It is to the credit of the opposition that despite the one-sided nature of the wicket, they still could mount a comparatively decent display, holding on to many of their bailiwicks. The PML(N) has managed to retain its majority in the provincial assembly elections in Punjab. The PPP has been voted back to power in the Sindh province. Overtly religious parties subscribing to extremism, which were surprisingly allowed by the Election Commission of Pakistan to register for the contest, fared badly, to the relief of most Pakistanis. In the run-up to the elections, the PTI had admitted a few extremist politicians into its fold.

The July 25 election has been the bloodiest so far in the history of Pakistan. At least 30 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack outside a polling station near Quetta. There were many terror attacks during the campaign, including one in Mastung, Balochistan, which claimed 149 lives.

A day before the election, a sitting judge of the Islamabad High Court, Justice Shaukat Siddiqui, said the country’s intelligence agencies were interfering in matters concerning the judiciary, executive and legislature. Despite the uneven playing field prepared for the opposition, the PTI has not been able to get an absolute majority. That was the preferred outcome of the powerful military establishment, political observers say. With a fractured mandate, Imran will be dependent on the Army headquarters if he wants to govern effectively and complete his five-year term in office. The Army establishment views Imran as a political novice who will need its expertise and guidance in steering the ship of state. Pakistan has a history of its Prime Ministers falling out with the military establishment after a brief honeymoon period. Imran has been insisting in recent days that he is his own master and will not be taking orders from above.

Cherished dream

Imran has announced that he will not seek the help of either the PML(N) or the PPP to form the government, despite his failure to get a working majority. All the same, he has achieved his dream of becoming Prime Minister, which many had dismissed as quixotic before the end of the last decade. It was a dream he had cherished soon after he quit active cricket. Imran comes from a prominent landed family and was a classmate of Benazir Bhutto in Oxford University. He became a cricketing icon, becoming one of the biggest names in the game. Even when he was playing cricket, he used to get embroiled in controversies. One of his cricketing colleagues even accused him of snorting cocaine while playing in a test match. His second wife accused him of taking illicit drugs. Besides, Imran had cultivated the image of a playboy during his cricketing days.

But what has made him popular among sections of Pakistani society, especially the youth, is his image as the “Mr Clean” of Pakistani politics. In the vein of the promise made by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his 2014 election campaign, Imran has pledged to bring back $2.3 billion allegedly stolen by Nawaz Sharif and his family.

Seventy per cent of Pakistan's population is under 30 years of age. The opposition parties have been derisively calling the supporters of the PTI as “boot polishia” (boot polishers of the military). The PTI and Imran, according to them, had no compunction in accepting help from the military for electoral gains. In 2006, the PPP and the PML(N) had signed a “charter of democracy” that had pledged that both the parties would not accept the help of the military to win elections.

Imran's political odyssey started in earnest after he built a charitable cancer hospital in memory of his mother. His first wife, Jemima Goldsmith, a rich British socialite, had helped him raise funds for the hospital internationally. But she was a hindrance to the brand of politics he espoused as she was born into a Jewish family. Imran’s political opponents branded him as a cog in the Zionist-Christian conspiracy to undermine Pakistan. In 1996, he started the PTI. It had few followers to begin with, and for many years Imran was an object of ridicule in the Pakistani media. Imran and his party started gaining political traction after the military establishment began giving a helping hand from the start of this decade. He has come a long way since then.

When this writer met him in his posh hillside home on the outskirts of Islamabad during the 2008 general election, Imran kept a comparatively low profile. At the time, he was part of the All Party Democratic Movement, which had given a call to boycott the elections, the first after the military coup by General Pervez Musharraf. Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007 when she was campaigning for the January 2008 general election. Imran was then a staunch opponent of Musharraf and the Army establishment. Imran said that had his party contested the 2008 election, it would have put up an impressive show. But he claimed that the boycott was based on principles as he was opposed to the way the Musharraf government treated the judiciary and the lawyer community.

Imran was happy with the victory of the PPP at the time and said that the vote was “pro-judiciary and anti-Musharraf”. Imran had described the Musharaff government as the “Bush dream team”. An activist judiciary a decade ago had played a key role in bringing down Musharraf, a figure representing the military establishment. The higher judiciary now has changed its colours. It is more comfortable dealing with the uniformed elite than with political leaders representing the people.

The military establishment those days viewed Imran as a political irritant. Imran’s anti-American rhetoric these days has been toned down, but, to his credit, he was among the first mainstream Pakistani politicians to be openly critical of the U.S.’ Afghanistan policy and the havoc it wrought internally on Pakistan. “Our own soldiers are killing civilians and our President calls it collateral damage,” he had said at the time. Musharraf was U.S. President George W. Bush’s main partner in the “war on terror” in the region.

The Election Commission took more than 24 hours to release the first complete results. The parliamentary constituencies in Pakistan are not as big or populous as the ones in India, but vote counting is done manually in Pakistan. Even as early election trends showed the PTI in the lead in over 100 constituencies, leaders of the other main parties were vociferous in their condemnation of the conduct of the elections and the counting process. Smaller opposition parties have also added their voices to the mounting chorus that the elections were rigged. Fazl-ur -Rahman, chief of the Islamist coalition Muttahida Majlis e Amal, alleged that the elections were rigged and called for an all-party meeting to discuss the issue.

When the PML(N) won a resounding victory in the 2013 election, the PTI had alleged massive rigging and wasted no time in demanding fresh elections. The PTI won 35 seats in 2013. In 2002, the PTI had only one seat in Parliament, Imran’s own.

International observers were allowed to monitor the elections. Former Indian Election Commissioner S.Y. Quereshi was among them. The European Union observers’ team was given permission to enter Pakistan only a week before the election date. The E.U. team had wanted to spend a month to monitor the election process closely. The Army had deployed 70,000 soldiers at the polling stations. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan had issued a statement before polling day saying that “there were unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the vote”.

In the previous two elections, India surprisingly did not figure as an issue. Imran, in fact, told Frontline in the 2008 interview that the people of Pakistan did not view India as “an enemy”. A lot of water has flowed down the Indus since then. In the 2018 elections, Imran occasionally inserted India into his election propaganda. He accused Nawaz Sharif of being in thrall of Narendra Modi and endangering the country’s security.

In his last big rally before election day, Imran accused Nawaz Sharif of “protecting India’s interests” and “attempting to damage the credibility of the July 25 elections”. He had earlier accused Nawaz Sharif of “speaking Modi’s language” to hurt the image of Pakistan. But Imran is also on record advocating “good relations” with India. The Pakistan Army has been asking for a resumption of the dialogue process between the two countries. The Line of Control has been comparatively quiet in recent weeks.

Nawaz Sharif, after becoming Prime Minister in 2013, made improvement in economic relations with India one of his top priorities. He returned to power promising to focus on the revival of the Pakistani economy. Unfortunately, Nawaz Sharif’s third stint in power coincided with the rise of Modi in 2014. Under Modi’s watch, the Indian government ensured that no meaningful talks were held at a high level between the two countries. Four years of the Bharatiya Janata Party rule has seen the situation in Kashmir deteriorate to dangerous levels. Kashmir once again became an emotive issue for many hard-line politicians in Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif and Modi

Nawaz Sharif was among the eight South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders present at the swearing-in ceremony of Modi in 2014. The Pakistani leader had hoped that his visit, which was heavily criticised back home, would kick-start the stalled diplomatic process. The Indian government did not reciprocate but chose to make Pakistan-bashing an election issue in State elections. Nawaz Sharif wanted to host the SAARC summit in 2016 in Islamabad, but India refused to participate saying the security environment was not conducive. The annual summit has been indefinitely postponed since then. If India had chosen to participate, it would have been a shot in the arm for the beleaguered Nawaz Sharif. Of course, the main reason for the jailed leader’s current political and personal discomfiture is Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. The military was particularly suspicious of what it perceived as Nawaz Sharif’s unilateral outreach to India.

The delay in the announcement of the results has naturally aroused suspicions. The PML(N) chief and its candidate for the top job, Shahbaz Sharif, said his party rejected the results “due to manifest and massive irregularities”. He said his polling agents were thrown out without being given Form-45 (the statement of vote count). He alleged that in many constituencies where his candidates were winning, counting was stopped and polling agents were thrown out. Speaking to the media, Shahbaz said that “the puppet mandate” to the PTI was unacceptable to his party. His colleague, Mushahid Hussein Sayyed, described the elections as the dirtiest in the “history of Pakistan”. The PPP chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, said that his party’s polling agents had been thrown out of polling stations all over the country, including the constituencies he contested from.

The Secretary of the Election Commission has dismissed the charges of rigging or other irregularities and said that the delay in the announcement of results was due to the “breakdown” of the RTS (results transmission system). He said all the presiding officers had tried to send the final results through the RTS. Breakdown in the computer systems or electronic grids has been used by governments to rig elections worldwide. The most famous illustration is the Mexican presidential election of 1988. The computer system had mysteriously collapsed. When it was restored a few hours later, the voting trends dramatically changed and the ruling party candidate, who was trailing badly, suddenly emerged as the winner. The government ordered that the ballots be burned so that all proof of foul play was eradicated.

The PML(N) held on to some of its strongholds in the Punjab province in the provincial elections. But the eleventh-hour defections manipulated by the “deep state”, coupled with the successful machinations that prevented the party from fielding its candidates in many constituencies in Punjab, upset its electoral chances. Punjab, which is the most populous province, accounts for the most number of seats in the National Assembly, and it is here that political fortunes are made or unmade. In the 2013 elections, the PTI performed poorly in the province. This time, with the aid of prominent defectors from the PML(N) and other parties, the PTI has come out on top. Many of the defectors are veteran party hoppers, but according to Imran, they are “electables” who are essential for any party to capture power at the centre. This has dented Imran’s image as an anti-corruption crusader somewhat. Former senior Ministers such as Chaudhry Nissar contested on the “Jeep” symbol as nominal independents. Those fighting on this symbol are known to be close to the Army headquarters. Interestingly, many of the “electables”, including Nissar, lost in their strongholds.

Imran will have to get to the serious business of governing. His first task will be to improve the economy. The Pakistani rupee is sliding, and unemployment is at an all-time high. The infant mortality rate in Pakistan is among the worst in Asia. The electricity grid is in a mess. There are myriad challenges. However, Pakistan's “all-weather friendship” with China remains intact. The Chinese government has been quick to issue a statement promising continued cooperation with the incoming government. China has already invested billions of dollars in the Pakistani economy. In all, China will be investing more than $60 billion in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This is part of China’s ambitious global Belt and Road Initiative to expand maritime and land infrastructure networks in order to boost trade.

Imran may find it more difficult to navigate relations with the U.S. and India. U.S. President Donald Trump has accused Pakistan of indulging in “lies and deceit” and cut off millions of dollars in aid. Imran has said that to blame Pakistan for the mess in Afghanistan is unfair. He believes that it is the U.S.’ disastrous military intervention in Afghanistan that has led to a spurt in terrorism in the region. Imran has been consistently holding the U.S. guilty of killing thousands of innocent Pakistani civilians in the so-called “war on terror”.

 

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