John Cherian

Pakistan, already reeling from unprecedented floods, is now beset with another serious political crisis triggered by the Election Commission’s decision to bar former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who heads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), from contesting the next election.

In the third week of October the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), acting on a complaint, found Khan “guilty of corrupt practices” and ruled that he could no longer continue as a member of the current parliament. The ECP in a detailed report stated that the former Prime Minister had “intentionally and deliberately” violated election laws. It directed the government to initiate criminal proceedings against Khan for allegedly lying to the commission about his assets from state gifts from 2019 to 2021.

The case against Khan

The complaint, made by a member of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML(N), in August, was that he did not divulge the purchase of expensive gifts that foreign leaders and dignitaries presented to him when he was Prime Minister. According to government rules, these gifts are deposited in the “Toshakhana”, which is a government department under the control of the Cabinet division.

The case against Khan was that he had not initially disclosed details about the gifts he had purchased from the state treasury or the proceeds from the reported re-sales of the gifts in the declaration he submitted to the ECP. The ECP statement said that the former Prime Minister had in fact made “false statements and incorrect declarations” regarding the gifts. The controversy broke last year with reports that Imran Khan and his wife had brought the gifts at a discounted rate and later sold them at market prices. Many Pakistani legal experts are of the opinion that selling the gifts does not violate the law, though it may look unethical.

In a landmark ruling five years ago, the Pakistan Supreme Court had declared then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif “dishonest” on flimsy legal grounds. He was removed from office and barred permanently from contesting elections. At that time relations between the civilian administration and the army had also deteriorated.

Pakistan’s “deep state” had already started championing Imran Khan and the PTI as an alternative to the PML(N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The security agencies and the judiciary were used to harass and sideline politicians and media personnel close to these two parties. Now the tables have turned again: The two parties are back in favour with the military headquarters and are running the government together.

Changing equations

The army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa, while on a visit to the US in early October, asserted that the army was not involved in politics any more and that it did not favour any particular party or individual. There are not many takers in Pakistan for this claim. Imran Khan’s alienation from his mentors in the army became apparent last year when the army top brass refused an extension for Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed as Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief despite a request from Prime Minister Khan. Khan then took more than a month to accede to the army chief’s request to transfer Lt Gen. Hameed as the Peshawar Corps Commander.

According to many Pakistani commentators and political analysts, the army’s intelligence wing played a big role in managing the PTI’s victory in the election held three years ago. However, since then the army leadership under Gen. Bajwa has feared that Khan will not heed its advice while choosing the next army chief; Bajwa is retiring in November. The next army chief will now be picked by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif from three names recommended by the army high command. Imran Khan has demanded that the next army chief must be appointed only after fresh elections are held.

Street protests

After the ECP announced the ban on Khan, the PTI called on its supporters to take to the streets. They responded by staging protests in many cities. But the next day Khan, in a televised address, called on the party faithful to call off their protests and prepare for a “grand march” on the capital, Islamabad, by the end of October. Khan has threatened to paralyse government functioning by flooding the capital with his supporters.

Meanwhile, Khan admitted to holding “back channel” talks to work out a rapprochement with the security establishment. He admitted that the talks had not been very fruitful. “Dialogue via back channels is part of the routine…. Political parties always keep negotiation channels open. But I don’t think anything is going to come out of these talks,” he said.

He claimed that the ECP’s decision was done at the behest of the coalition government and that he had anticipated such a move. Khan had earlier got into trouble for casting aspersions on the judiciary. He was accused of attempting to intimidate officials of the judiciary and the police force in a speech he delivered after one of his close aides was arrested and allegedly tortured for criticising the army leadership.

Khan faces multiple court cases; among them there were also charges of terrorism. A court in Islamabad, in mid September, ordered that the terrorism charges be dropped. Pakistan’s anti-terrorism laws are more draconian than those in India, and a conviction under them means either a death sentence or jail for life.

Resurgent PTI

The ECP’s ruling came on the heels of the PTI’s spectacular showing in recent byelections; it retained almost all the seats it had won in the last election. After the PTI government lost its majority in the parliament, its legislators resigned en masse, necessitating byelections. In June, Khan contested from six constituencies and won from all of them.

Tear gas being used to disperse supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in Islamabad on October 21 after the Pakistan Election Commission disqualified former Prime Minister Imran Khan on charges of unlawfully selling state gifts. | Photo Credit: Ghulam Rasool/AFP

The PTI’s legal team has filed an appeal in the Islamabad High Court against the ECP’s ruling, which, if implemented, will leave the party virtually rudderless. The Chief Justice of Islamabad High Court, Athar Minallah, while hearing Khan’s petition, said that the former Prime Minster “won’t face any problems” in contesting the byelection on October 30 in Khurram constituency. The judge said that the final judgment about Khan’s disqualification from the electoral process would be taken only after the ECP filed its detailed report and the court completed its hearing. The ECP filed its report the day after the Islamabad High Court judge’s observations. Khan has sought a ruling from the court while stating that the ECP lacks the power under the Constitution to decide “questions of ‘corrupt practices and disqualification’”.

Since his ouster earlier in the year, Khan has locked horns with influential sections of the security establishment. Every elected leader in Pakistan has invariably had a falling out with the “deep state” before the completion of their terms, among them Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan. However, no leader has dared to so openly confront the military establishment since Zulfiqar Bhutto.

Against the ‘deep state’

Khan has been criss-crossing the country addressing large rallies. Much of his ire is directed against the military. He states that it is responsible for his downfall and uses the term “neutrals” for the army leadership led by Gen. Qamar Bajwa. He also seems to have convinced his growing legion of supporters that he was removed from office as a result of a “foreign conspiracy” hatched in Washington. The Biden administration, no doubt, was unhappy with many of Khan’s actions, among them a visit to Moscow in February just before the Russian military action in Ukraine.

Throughout his political career, Khan has been a strong critic of US policies in Afghanistan. But tapes of conversations between Khan and his top aides, which were recently leaked, purport to show that the former Prime Minster was hyping the alleged machinations of Washington. One tape showed Khan asking his associates to indulge in horse-trading before the no-confidence vote against him was to take place in the parliament. Other leaked conversations showing Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif in a bad light were also aired on television channels. All the conversations that surfaced in early October were secretly taped in the Prime Minister’s office in Islamabad.

Imran Khan insists that he was ousted because his opponents wanted to derail his crusade against entrenched corruption in the country. Khan has labelled the leaders of the coalition government as “corrupt” and “absconders”. He has also alleged that the head of the Election Commission is under “immense political pressure” and is biased against the PTI.

He and his supporters claim that the massive victories registered by the PTI in the byelections held in June and October show that the coalition government in Islamabad lacks public legitimacy. The PTI did particularly well in Punjab province, considered to be the bastion of Nawaz Sharif and his Muslim League. Fawad Choudhury, a senior PTI leader and close associate of Khan, said the byelections were a referendum for “new polls” to be held at the earliest.

Off FATF grey list

In the midst of the dismal political and economic scenario, there was however some good news for the country. On October 21, the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) announced that it was removing Pakistan from the so-called “grey list”. The list consists of countries that do not take adequate measures against money laundering and terrorism financing. The FATF welcomed Pakistan’s “significant progress in improving” its anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financing policies. Pakistan had been on FATF’s “grey list” since 2018.

Shahbaz Sharif said that the country’s removal from the FATF list was “a vindication of our determined and sustained efforts over the years” to combat terrorism. The Indian government has said that Pakistan has still a lot of work to do in countering terrorist activity on its soil. New Delhi did, however, acknowledge that the government in Islamabad, under pressure from the FATF, had taken some steps against people like Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack. The Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson said that Pakistan “must continue to take credible, verifiable, irreversible, and sustained action against terrorist financing emanating from territories under its control”.

Top - Home