Imran Khan's conflict with the military establishment in Pakistan, and his political future

PTI Chairman Imran Khan in June 2023. Image via Wikipedia by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. CC BY 3.0.

PTI Chairman Imran Khan in June 2023. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. (CC BY 3.0).

On April 1 this year, a Pakistan court suspended former Prime Minister Imran Khan's 14-year jail sentence for illegally selling state gifts given to him by foreign dignitaries while in office. He was sentenced alongside his wife Bushra Bibi, on January 31, 2024, a week before the February 8 general elections, which Khan's party claims were rigged.

Earlier, on February 3, 2024, Khan and his wife received a seven-year jail sentence for breaching Islamic marriage laws. Khan, who has been detained since August 2023, faces numerous lawsuits and trials aimed at keeping him from the electoral campaign and potentially returning to power.

On April 7, a post on Khan's account on X (formerly Twitter) revealed his conversations with journalists while in the Adiala jail, where he accused Pakistan's Chief of Army General Asim Munir of orchestrating state affairs and being behind the case involving state gifts against him and his wife. Khan further asserted that an assassination plot against him occurred on March 18, 2024, alleging that his party's mandate was manipulated to exert control over PTI and Khan.

Khan's recent tweet has stirred significant controversy on social media, sparking debates and speculation about the political future of PTI and Imran Khan. Social media platform X remains banned in Pakistan since the time of the February 8 elections because of concerns regarding national security.

During Khan's tenure, in July 2019, Lieutenant General Asim Munir was removed from his position as the director-general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's intelligence agency, only eight months after his appointment. In November 2022, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif appointed Asim Munir as chief of army staff, just three days before Munir's scheduled retirement. Sharif alleged in May 2023 that Khan had removed Munir as the head of ISI in 2019 because the spy chief confronted him with evidence of corruption involving his wife.

From cricket captain to politician

Imran Khan is an accomplished cricket player who led the country's cricket team as captain, guiding them to victory in the 1992 Cricket World Cup.

Khan started his political career by founding the centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in April 1996. It took 16 years for the party to establish a significant presence in the National Assembly following the 2013 general elections when it emerged as the second-largest party by popular vote.

Over the past decade, Khan persisted in organizing sit-ins, leading long marches, and engaging supporters through “container politics.” Khan's rhetoric and clever use of social media to reach out to the younger generation have been instrumental in bolstering PTI's standing in Pakistani politics and enhancing Khan's public appeal.

In and out of power

On July 25, 2018, Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) emerged as the largest political party in Pakistan, securing 149 general seats. The national assembly held sessions after that, and PTI garnered support from independent candidates for the required votes to form a coalition government. On August 17, 2018, Khan secured the required 176 votes in the 342-member assembly and became the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Throughout Khan's short tenure, the government faced consistent criticisms of “ineffective governance” and “economic distress” from opposition parties. In response, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a coalition comprising 11 parties, was formed in September 2020, aiming to oust Khan from power. Khan's initial attempt to bypass the no-confidence motion was thwarted by the country's supreme court. Subsequently, a late-night session of the National Assembly on April 10, 2022, led to the downfall of Khan's regime through a no-confidence vote.

Once ousted from power, Khan blamed foreign conspiracies and took to the streets, continuing protests alongside his party supporters across the country. These protests, known as the “Azadi Movement,” were directed against the ruling coalition, PDM.

PTI protests the ouster of Imran Khan. April 2022. Image via Wikipedia by Voice of America. Public Domain.

PTI protests the ouster of Imran Khan in April 2022. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Voice of America. Public domain.

On November 3, 2022, Khan was shot in an assassination attempt, sustaining a leg injury, while delivering a speech to his party supporters in Wazirabad, a district in the Punjab province.

On May 9, 2023, he was arrested on corruption charges related to the Al-Qadir trust case, triggering widespread riots and escalating violence. From the vandalization of army and government facilities to the shutdown of critical telecommunication services, it marked a peak of political turmoil. According to statistics, five people lost their lives, while thousands were arrested in the aftermath of the chaos. On May 12, 2023, Khan was granted bail and released. Subsequently, high-profile party leaders were detained, alongside a significant departure of loyalists.

Keeping Khan out of the elections

Ahead of elections, Khan faced arrest once again on August 5, 2023, following the verdict of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) declaring him guilty of corrupt activities in the Toshakhana case. He was sentenced to three years in prison, along with a fine. Following his conviction, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) disqualified Imran Khan from holding office for five years, thus prohibiting him from participating in the 2024 General Elections.

In December 2023, the Supreme Court of Pakistan revoked the electoral symbol of PTI – the “bat” – for the 2024 general elections. This decision forced the PTI candidates to run as independent candidates, each assigned a distinct electoral symbol, which caused confusion and concern. However, this setback did not dissuade PTI supporters from backing them. In the general elections held on February 8, 2024, the PTI-backed alliance secured 100 seats in the National Assembly, with PML-N coming in second with 75 seats, and PPP in third place with 54 seats.

After the results were announced, PTI initiated nationwide protests, denouncing the 2024 electoral process as “rigged.” The police unleashed another crackdown on the protestors, resulting in the arrest of hundreds of PTI supporters and members.

A new coalition government was formed consisting of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and others, and on March 4, Shehbaz Sharif was reelected prime minister. The new government kept Khan under pressure, as on March 12, a two-week ban was imposed on all public visits, meetings and interviews at the Adiala jail in Rawalpindi.

The political future of PTI and Imran Khan

New York-based senior Pakistani journalist Wajahat Saeed Khan posted a video on YouTube scrutinizing Imran Khan's tweets line-by-line, in which he placed the blame on the chief of the army. The military forces, often referred to as the “military establishment,” are believed to be manipulating political affairs behind the scenes to sway them in their favour. As per a recent report, some judges were forced by military intelligence to make them hear an appeal against Khan.

Screenshot from a video by Wajahat S. Khan. Fair use.

Screenshot from a YouTube video ‘Imran Khan's Direct Attack on Asim Munir: Word by Word, Sentence by Sentence’ by Wajahat S. Khan. Fair use.

Khan's ousting via a constitutional no-confidence vote was largely perceived to be a consequence of his falling out with the military. Since then, he has become increasingly confrontational towards the military establishment. However, according to Wajahat S. Khan, the latest tweet marks a “tipping point” in the two-year-long conflict involving PTI. Additionally, Wajahat S. Khan interviewed PTI's senior member, Shandana Gulzar Khan, focusing on the details of the crackdown. Criticizing the military in such direct terms will likely complicate Khan's political future and diminish his chances of returning to power, Wajahat Khan observed.

While Khan has been acquitted in a few cases, dozens of other cases are pending. PTI's political future is clouded by uncertainty, complicated by Khan's confrontational rhetoric directed at the military establishment. According to journalist Hamid Mir's analysis on the prime talk show “Aaj Shahzeb Khanzada Kay Saath” (“Today with Shahzeb Khanzada”), Imran Khan appears uninterested in engaging with top military officials. In a recent message, Khan emphasized his preference for jail over engaging in negotiations. With ongoing legal battles, a renewed crackdown against PTI members and supporters, anti-army rhetoric, and other threats, PTI's political future remains in question.

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