It turned out to be an outstanding performance in the Pakistan elections by Khan’s Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), even as he serves time in jail. Though Khan himself was barred from contesting due to a conviction in a corruption case, PTI candidates, who had to contest as independents, won 91 seats in the National Assembly. Though they are far from wresting power, the result indicates the success of a risky political strategy deployed by Khan since his ouster as the Prime Minister in a no-confidence motion in April 2022.
Taking On The Military
What played out in this election was eerily similar to what transpired in 2018. Only, the protagonists were differently placed. It was Nawaz Sharif who was sentenced to prison less than three weeks before the polls and Khan enjoyed the backing of the military. The allegations of the election not being free and fair were also similar, and the military was explicitly accused of interfering in the process to prop its blue-eyed boy, Khan, to the premiership. Khan ultimately became Prime Minister, but his relationship with the all-powerful military soured within four years as he was seen to be meddling in the supposed civilian no-go zone of military and ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) appointments.
Once out of power, Khan took on the military in an unprecedented manner. Within a month of being ousted, he led a “long march” into Islamabad that turned violent. Another one in November 2022 saw him being shot in the leg by a gunman who opened fire at a rally in Wazirabad. Khan accused a senior army official, Major General Faisal Naseer, of the attempted assassination bid. In a rare statement, the Pakistan military rebutted the allegation by Khan. It said, “This has been a consistent pattern for the last one year where military and intelligence agencies officials are targeted with insinuations and sensational propaganda for the furtherance of political objectives.”
Khan’s constant tirades against the military saw an unusual and perhaps unimaginable outcome. The military, a formidable and unopposed power in Pakistan, saw violent attacks against itself in May 2023. Protesters took to the streets after Khan’s arrest and were seen not just attacking the police and government buildings but also military installations. Shockingly, the army headquarters and an air force base were targeted.
This was one of the few early indications that Khan’s political gamble of taking on the military had paid off. It was yielding dividends, and Khan’s PTI was hopeful that it would bear even electoral dividends.
Whipping up anti-US sentiment
As the Pakistan economy tanked and Khan made an unceremonious exit from power, he trained his guns at the United States. Khan not only accused the US of being behind his ouster but also singled out US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, for conveying the same to the then-Pakistan ambassador to the US, Asad Majeed Khan.
In a press conference, Khan himself said that Lu told Majeed Khan there would be implications if Khan was not removed. The meeting, as revealed later, had taken place in the backdrop of Khan’s visit to Moscow just as Russia attacked Ukraine, gravely upsetting Washington DC.
However, Khan continued to use the argument of a “foreign conspiracy” behind his defeat in the no-confidence motion. The US denied the allegation of interference in Pakistani affairs.
Significantly, soon after the victory of Khan’s candidates, the US State Department released a statement saying, “The United States is prepared to work with the next Pakistani government, regardless of political party, to advance our shared interests,” while expressing concern over the allegations of election fraud – “claims of interference or fraud should be fully investigated”.
Playing Up The ‘Outsider’ Threat
However, over the last two years, Khan successfully played on anti-US sentiment in some segments of Pakistani society. Even though at one point he seemed to have taken a U-turn when he told the Financial Times, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s over, it’s behind me. The Pakistan I want to lead must have good relationships with everyone, especially the United States”, he had already fanned the embers of discontent and anger that had taken root in some places since the ‘war on terror’ days. Khan used it as a political tool to fuel suspicion against an outsider meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs.
Khan, therefore, seems to have put to use a political strategy that’s fraught with the danger of backfiring in order to make a political mark in dire circumstances. It may not lead to any immediate, direct benefits in terms of political power, but it perhaps has the potential to keep his support base intact.
(Maha Siddiqui is a journalist who has extensively reported on public policy and global affairs.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.