Sarmad Ishfaq is an independent researcher and writer whose work has been published by Harvard Kennedy School Review, the Diplomat, Open Democracy, Paradigm Shift, Mondoweiss, and Eurasia Review to name a few. He has also been published by several international peer-reviewed journals such as Taylor and Francis' Social Identities. Before becoming an independent writer, he worked as a research fellow for the Lahore Center for Peace Research. He has a master's degree in International Relations from the University of Wollongong in Dubai where he was recognized as the 'Top Graduate'.
The Political Context Prior to Imran Khan’s Jalsa
Before the Pakistani Democratic Movement (PDM) decided to introduce a no-confidence vote against Imran Khan of PTI, the latter’s popularity was waning due to economic turmoil in the country. Ironically, the opposition uniting to unseat the premier has become the latest of many lifelines Mr. Khan has received during his tenure.
While the anti-Imran opposition known as the PDM might not have the “street pull” of Imran Khan’s PTI over Pakistan’s citizenry, they do have some street power in the form of JUI-F’s madrasah students. Secondly, many Pakistanis, at home and abroad, perceive the PDM as a conglomerate of corrupt and selfish individuals who are not worried about Pakistan but rather their court cases and political futures.
Therefore, while the PDM attempts to frame their long marches and rallies as “mehngai marches,” many in Pakistan think within their hearts lie ulterior motives. The opposition shocked the government a few weeks back by being able to lure sitting PTI MNAs to their camp – displaying that they are amassing the 172 people required to unseat Imran Khan.
It was a harrowing discovery to find out that the “disgruntled” PTI MNAs were being hidden from the public and media’s eye in the Sindh House in Islamabad by the PDM. While horse-trading is not a new phenomenon in Pakistani politics, the age of social media has allowed many previously obfuscated things to come into the light.
In the case of the missing PTI MNAs, rumors started floating that they had been bribed by money and/or the promise of being sponsored by either the PML-N or PPP in the next election. The PTI government claims that they have evidence of foul play (bribes) by the PDM and so do some journalists such as Imran Khan (not to be confused with the PM).
Whether there is merit to the government’s claim that foul play was rampant here or the narrative of the opposition that these PTI MNAs are disgruntled by Imran Khan, many Pakistanis, pro-PTI or pro-PDM, believe that some sort of bribery transpired. This moment acted as a catalyst for Imran Khan’s resurging popularity. The populous crowds in the Malakand, Mansehra, and other jalsas brought much-needed momentum to Imran Khan’s pinnacle jalsa at Islamabad’s parade ground.
Imran Khan’s Islamabad Jalsa & the Mysterious Letter
Now coming to the parade ground jalsa itself where Imran Khan assured to reveal something massive that would shock Pakistani politics. The main takeaway from Mr. Khan’s speech was that there was an international conspiracy against his government by internal actors. He waved a letter in front of the hundreds of thousands present and said that he would show this evidence to anyone off the record.
That letter allegedly was a warning in writing by foreign powers to Imran Khan, with some speculating that it might have been Western powers warning Pakistan not to get too cordial with Russia. The PM also implied that money was being funneled from exogenous sources and was being utilized internally in the shape of the no-confidence vote.
While some people and the media were dissatisfied that he did not present the evidence to the public, the premier was very cautious but confident about what he knew. Many pundits analyzed Imran Khan’s use of the letter as a warning shot to the internal actors that are allegedly playing a role against Imran Khan’s government in connivance with foreign powers – and for that reason, he did not need to elaborate more.
He likened the current political climate in the country to the situation that surrounded Bhutto before he was executed – alluding to the foreign-led conspiracy against Bhutto that was supported by internal actors. Since the jalsa, the government has provided some more details regarding the letter and evidence they are in possession of – claiming that the letter asserted that if the no-confidence vote against Imran Khan fails, it would not bode well for Pakistan.
More shockingly, the PTI government claims the letter was received before the PDM had decided to launch a no-confidence vote against the PM – implying that the foreign powers had prior knowledge. It is possible that the ‘foreign powers’ behind the letters were wary of the budding Pakistan-Russia-China friendship. The government also claimed that Nawaz Sharif is being used by international powers and that he had held meetings with Israeli diplomats.
To prove that such a threat is not smoke and mirrors, the government has agreed to show the contents of the letter to the Chief Justice of Pakistan as well as senior journalists – and has previously revealed this evidence to the military as well. The opposition and anti-PTI elements in Pakistan are calling the letter a machination of a desperate Imran to stay in power, however, this kind of political antic would undermine Imran Khan’s popularity and therefore I do not think the letter is faux (especially if it was shown to the military).
So How Has Imran Khan Won?
The two major objectives of the jalsa were the following:
1) To show his renewed public support in order to get the dissident PTI MNAs to rejoin as well as placating any misgivings that PTI-allied political parties may have.
2) To claim that he knows about the conspiracy therefore warning internal actors to cease and desist or else risk the truth coming out fully.
If the PM’s plan has worked and dissidents come back to his party and/or the PTI-allied parties stay with his government, the opposition cannot gain the 172 number required to dethrone him. Imran Khan has warned his party members that if they went ahead with voting against the party, the people would never forgive them.
Some social media videos showing dissident PTI MNAs in public being heckled and mocked by PTI supporters have surfaced in past weeks, which might be an indication of how things could go for them. There is also a presidential reference in the Supreme Court vis-à-vis Article 63(A) that could see party-members voting against the party being disbarred for a certain term. That decision of the Supreme court could help or hurt Imran Khan.
The government has stated that some PTI dissidents want to rejoin the fold, which is good news for PTI. In short, if the no-confidence does not succeed, Imran Khan has won this battle. The flipside of this situation – i.e. the success of the vote of no-confidence – however, seems to be more plausible right now. While there have been reports that some dissidents have expressed their willingness to stay with PTI, others are still siding with the opposition.
More importantly, MQM-P, which was a PTI-ally, has just ratified that they are with the opposition now and this would move could well mean the exodus of the PTI government from the federal. Although PTI has secured their Punjab government for now by allowing PML-Q leader Pervaiz Elahi to become the Chief Minister of Punjab, PDM might try to break Punjab as well via the Tareen and Aleem group (more PTI-dissidents).
So how has Imran Khan won in this scenario? Regardless of either outcome, the PM has the most fundamental thing he requires i.e. snowballing public support. If the opposition succeeds in unseating the premier, Imran Khan’s popularity will burgeon, as many Pakistanis will see this as a serious injustice and will resist any regression in the country’s politics manifested by the PDM’s leadership.
Despite the tormenting inflation, many still believe that Imran Khan is the better option in relation to the opposition. The situation is akin to when Imran Khan was gaining momentum against PPP, PML-N and others in the 2018 election. While that was more of getting Mr. Khan to the top, this time around it would be to keep the old status-quo of Pakistani politics from retaking the country.
If Mr. Khan is unseated, he will then also have carte blanche to divulge other evidence against the opposition apart from the letter, which would further fuel the fire of his popularity. This evidence could include the opposition parties bribing MNAs among other things. After all, Imran Khan is said to be a far more dangerous force when he is in the opposition.
What the opposition does after winning, in my opinion, will also benefit Imran Khan. If successful, the opposition will either form a unity/coalition government until the next election in 2023, which will perform worse than Imran Khan’s since this assortment of parties, will not be able to collaborate effectively especially after inheriting the massive economic troubles of the PTI government. There will be a lot of pressure on PML-N as they would have the majority.
Discussions on which party gets which ministry/portfolio have already begun and this hodgepodge will be hard-pressed in steering the government. The opposition is keen on making Shehbaz Sharif (PML-N) the new PM, while there are murmurings that Zardari might become President again and Bilawal might be the new foreign minister – other PDM members will be hopeful for different ministries.
This would be such a catastrophic government setup coupled with Pakistan’s frail economy that no major achievement can be truly made by the opposition until the 2023 election, which would proliferate Imran Khan’s popularity for next year’s election. The PDM’s potential actions such as undermining the NAB to allow themselves political relief coupled with the possibility of disallowing electronic voting machines (EVMs) and barring overseas Pakistanis from voting will dampen their popularity further.
If the PDM instead decides not to take the reins instantly, but instead opts for an early election, that, too, in my opinion, could backfire. Imran Khan’s string of jalsas, his anti-PDM narrative, and the success of the no-confidence vote would garner so much impetus then that his chances of securing a stronger government in an early election could crystalize (if the elections are free and fair).
Remains or Removed – It’s Imran Khan’s Win
Therefore, while it currently appears that the opposition might succeed in dethroning Mr. Khan, this will be disastrous for them in the short and long term. In conclusion, the opposition and the high possibility of Western support for them have ironically breathed new life into a stressed PM.
I would even argue that Imran Khan losing the no-confidence vote now would be more beneficial for his political career. Imran Khan’s renewed mass appeal implies that he will likely be winning this game of thrones against the PDM regardless of the no-confidence outcome and irrespective of an early election or a normal 2023 one.
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