Imran Khan’s absence fuels defiance and despair for Pakistan voters

Imran Khan’s absence fuels defiance and despair for Pakistan voters Hetro Solutions

Imran Khan has been convicted in multiple cases that he says are politically motivated and is receiving new jail terms by the day.

Imran Khan’s absence fuels defiance and despair for Pakistan voters Hetro Solutions

At a campaign office of Imran Khan’s beleaguered political party in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, workers remain defiant about an election later this week even as the former prime minister sits in jail and another ex-leader, Nawaz Sharif, is the favorite to take power.

“We will not panic,” Tasawar Farooq, 38, said in an interview at the office ahead of Thursday’s vote. “We will compete with them fully.”

One of Farooq’s brothers, a politician with Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, is being tried in a military court for alleged involvement in an attack on government and army buildings after the one-time cricket star was first detained last May. Another is running in his place as an independent candidate, the only possibility for Imran Khan supporters after a court banned them from contesting the election under the PTI banner.

But despite the confidence, the PTI party workers aren’t sure if the office will get shut down. Khan has been convicted in multiple cases that he says are politically motivated and is receiving new jail terms by the day. On Saturday, a court sentence him and his wife to seven years in prison over an unlawful marriage, his third conviction in the past week.

Pakistan Imran khan  elections Hetro Solutions

Pakistan’s roughly 129 million voters go to the polls with a political landscape drastically changed from the last election in 2018. The country’s politics have been in flux since Khan was removed in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April 2022 after falling out with the military, prompting him to stage rallies and whip up his millions of young supporters until the government and army clamped down.

Imran Khan’s party is now gutted, its remaining candidates no longer able to run under the PTI name, and not even allowed to use its symbol — a cricket bat — to help illiterate voters choose. Another political heavyweight, three-time former premier Nawaz Sharif, 74, has returned from exile in London, been acquitted of corruption charges and is running again as PM. His revival is widely seen as blessed by the military, as a way to counter Khan’s popularity.

Yet for all this change, some things remain the same. Analysts say the army, which has run Pakistan directly or indirectly for much of the nation’s history, is as powerful and involved in politics as ever.

The nuclear-armed nation of more than 240 million people is important for regional and global stability, and its economy remains fragile, with inflation running at 28 per cent and $25 billion of external debt payments due in the fiscal year starting The International Monetary Fund’s latest bailout program, Pakistan’s 23rd since independence in 1947, expires in March, making negotiating a fresh deal the new prime minister’s first priority.

At a gathering of Pakistan’s business elite in Karachi last week, many people interviewed said they predicted a hung parliament and then a weak coalition government. Most expect it to be led by Sharif — or his brother, Shehbaz, also a former prime minister. They described the current army chief, Asim Munir, as hafiz, someone who knows the Koran by heart, and all agreed he’s the true power in Pakistan.

The army didn’t respond to a request for comment. In November 2022, a previous army chief said the military has decided not to interfere in political matters.

For emerging and frontier markets money manager FIM Partners, the base case is the new prime minister will continue Pakistan’s reforms. Pakistan’s dollar bonds have rallied going into the election, with the notes gaining 9 per cent last month, making them among the best performers in the world. They returned almost 100 per cent in 2023. The country’s benchmark stock index has gained more than 50 per cent since late June, when Pakistan clinched its IMF bailout. The rupee is up more than 2 per cent in the period, making it the best-performing currency in Asia.

If Nawaz Sharif returns as prime minister, he’ll face two challenges, according to Madiha Afzal, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. One is “managing Pakistan’s economic problems, especially soaring inflation,” she says. The other is “managing his relationship with a strengthened military.”

With Imran Khan in jail, Sharif’s main challenger, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is someone who also knows all about how being a high-profile politician in Pakistan can go wrong. His mother, Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister, was assassinated at a political rally in 2007. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was removed as prime minister in a military coup and then executed in 1979.

Imran Khan may be out of the picture, but he still has the highest approval rating going into the election at 57 per cent, according to the latest Gallup Pakistan survey published in January. That compares to 52 per cent for Nawaz Sharif and 35 per cent for Bhutto Zardari, 35.

One wild card is the more than 200 PTI members, like Farooq’s brother, who are running as independents. There are 266 seats up for direct election in the national assembly, meaning a party would need to win 134 of them to clinch a majority. If the PTI independents cumulatively get a majority, the next question will be whether they are allowed to form a government.

What’s more likely is other parties will try to poach them, with the military also putting pressure on them to join a particular coalition, according to Niaz Murtaza, a political economist and op-ed writer for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper.

“Everybody will be ready with their nets out,” Murtaza said. Elected lawmakers could shift their allegiances to “whoever offers the highest bid,” he said.

It’s also unclear whether PTI supporters will turn out in large numbers or boycott the elections, according to analysts.

The process of finalizing the government will take until the end of the month, potentially fueling political and market uncertainty if there’s no clear winner.

In the Sharif heartland of Lahore, Muhammad Naeem, 50, a local travel agent, says he knows what to expect if Nawaz Sharif becomes prime minister again: better infrastructure and incentives for the business community.

Another potential implication of a Sharif return is improved relations with India. The politician has sought to improve ties with Pakistan’s arch-rival. In 2014, he attended Prime Minister Narendra Mod’s swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi. The following year, Modi made a surprise visit to Lahore.

“He made things better here,” Naeem said of Sharif. “The people are smart – they will only vote for someone who has delivered.”

Down the street, three young men sitting outside a shrine are divided. One supports Khan’s party, one Sharif’s and one a far-right religious group.

“Nawaz Sharif, we’ve given three or four chances already,” said Abdul Aleem, 21, a student. “One more chance will be too much.”

Then a man leans out from a rickshaw to make his preference known. “Imran Khan,  zindabad!” he proclaims in Urdu. Long live Imran Khan

Pakistan’s youth, big backers of Khan, are “disillusioned about the electoral system,” according to Amna Kausar, senior projects manager at the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency. People aged 18 to 35 account for more than 40 per cent of eligible voters, and over the past eight elections, only 31 per cent of them on average voted, the think tank said.

“If you ask everyone from university, they will say I want to move outside to foreign countries,” said Alizan Mary Gill, 21, a psychology student at Forman Christian College in Lahore.

Few expect large-scale political unrest from Khan’s supporters after the crackdown on PTI protesters in May. The party has faced restrictions staging physical rallies and has moved much of its campaigning online. It’s even using artificial intelligence to craft and deliver speeches in Khan’s voice. Supporters are also adopting Prisoner No. 804 — Khan’s jail tag — as a rallying call.

And back at the campaign office, Farooq also puts a brave face on PTI’s predicament.

“They are trying to finish the party,” he said. “But parties don’t vanish like this.”

–With assistance from Ismail Dilawar, Faseeh Mangi, Tom Redmond, Niluksi Koswanage, Netty Ismail and Karl Lester M. Yap.

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