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Kajal Agrawal

Imran bowls surprising swing at opponents Featured

  12 February 2024

The people of Pakistan have spoken. And if the results being projected by a man that the Army has not been able to bend to their will is even half-way true,

the winner in Pakistan’s critical 2024 national polls is not Punjab strongman and three-time former prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif or prime ministerial hopeful Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party, but the Pakistan Army’s arch nemesis, Imran Khan Niazi. The results were announced some 60 hours after polls closed on Thursday.

Imran's runaway victory at the hustings, despite being jailed for eight months and his party made electorally ineligible, has thrown a huge question mark over an electoral exercise that the vast majority of Pakistanis see as ‘state-managed’. The worries are compounded by a highly suspect internet shutdown during counting, supposedly initiated to “prevent violence”.

Fingers are being pointed at the Army led by Imran’s bete noire Gen Syed Asim Munir and his Inter-Services Intelligence cohort, Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum, for the ‘manufactured’ poll results—charges that both have denied.

Imran is preparing to unleash a fresh round of street protests to challenge the PML-N-PPP coalition government being put in place at the Army’s prodding, despite the political stalwarts’ shockingly poor performance in their former stomping grounds. The irony that political leaders who know first-hand what it is to be on the wrong side of the military—and history—are preparing to sup at the same table as the men in khakhi, is lost on no one.

Given the serious charges and jail terms slapped against Imran for espionage and leaking state secrets, and despite getting bail which is no more than a move to offset international condemnation of his continued incarceration neither the US nor the UK can be seen as condoning, there’s little likelihood that he will be released from jail.

But even from behind bars, he has upset the Army’s applecart, forcing it to scramble to contain the fallout from the elections that are being questioned not just within Pakistan, but in major world capitals.

Despite the PML-N winning only 75 seats, Nawaz Sharif, the 74-year-old political tour de force, who had been removed from office in 2018 but welcomed back to the political fold to counter Imran, announced victory and laid claim to a historic fourth term in office. Within hours, the Army’s nemesis appeared in an AI-generated image and laid claim to form his own government. Imran’s claim? He won “a landslide victory” in “an unprecedented fightback”. “We are winning in more than 170 seats in the National Assembly,” he said on his X account.

By late Saturday, his party, the tech-savvy Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was questioning the slow vote count as an attempt to deprive PTI-backed independents of victory. They sent out numbers based on the Form 45 notices on the votes cast posted outside booths by the Election Commission of Pakistan.

From claiming victory in 98 of the 245 seats counted by Friday evening, as opposed to 69 by the PML-N and 51 by the Pakistan People’s Party, the PTI on Saturday upped that number to 99 seats. By late Saturday night, PTI was flooding social media with grandiose claims they had won 183 seats, the PPP 41 seats and the PMLN a mere 17, with the Jamaat-ul-Islam Fazlur winning 2 seats, and similar tallies of one and two to a host of smaller parties.

As Nawaz reaches out to the young and untested Bilawal and his far cannier father Asif Ali Zardari through his brother and former prime minister Shahbaz Sharif, few recall the large-hearted Nawaz and the pragmatic Benazir Bhutto’s deal in 2006-07, overseen by Washington and the then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

 

This time, Nawaz has a far trickier path to navigate as the IMF deal negotiated by his brother Shahbaz’s government rides on projecting a steady, savvy hand at the tiller. But while it's clear PTI's final numbers of 101 electoral winners, who all fought as independents, cannot form a government, it hasn’t stopped the wily Imran from throwing a ticking bomb under Gen Munir’s bus. He would like nothing better than for it to explode and show up his arch-enemy for stalling his unexpectedly strong showing at the hustings.

The incarcerated populist won the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and seats in Karachi. He is challenging Nawaz’s win in his home seat of Lahore. He has fed off a strong anti-American, anti-establishment, anti-dynast sentiment in his country to garner these votes. This is an electoral impasse that no one, least of all Gen Munir, saw coming.

 

But as this fractured mandate that Imran has now counter-engineered shows, he cannot be dismissed as an aberration, a footnote, as the Army would like to. The fact that PTI leaders who abandoned Imran are now electoral write-offs is one message that must be taken on board. Second, Imran’s independents are a potent third force, one he will guard against poaching by PML-N for a multi-party coalition.

Imran has opened communication lines with the Zardari-Bhuttos, offering to back Zardari as president and Bilawal as prime minister, in return for a free pass out of a lifetime in prison. If the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement agrees to play on Imran’s team, the game could change in the Kaptaan’s favour.

Gen Munir—unlike his predecessor Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, who had hand-picked Imran for political office overlooking the cricketer’s hedonist, narcissistic streak that impeded good governance—knows that Imran’s popularity cuts across gender, age and community. With his own term coming to an end in a year, Munir, a Shehbaz Sharif appointee hand-held by a Washington frowning on Imran's return, also needs a pliant prime minister to extend his own term.

 

Imran had famously blotted his copybook with impolitic critiques of Washington’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, alienating Pakistan’s mentors, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. He also upset Washington by calling for neutrality in the Ukraine-Russia war when he arrived in Moscow on the day Vladimir Putin launched the war.

Imran, holding off on unleashing his street power to arrive at a backroom deal with the establishment, looks unlikely. He seems more inclined to pressure the establishment, emboldened after the US State Department called for an investigation into “claims of election interference or fraud in Pakistan” and US politicians called for a probe into the electoral process.

For Gen Munir as much as Mian Nawaz Sharif, everything rides on putting in place a stable government that not only keeps the Sharif political legacy alive, but leads Pakistan out of the economic morass. Imran Khan, the wild card, could upend all that and more.

 

Priyanka Gandhi

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