Imran Khan Down, What Now?

Imran Khan Down, What Now?
Here's how things are likely to unfold after Saturday's fast-paced developments:

1. PTI Chairman Imran Khan will not take part in the upcoming elections because of his disqualification. This kicked in after Saturday's verdict of the sessions court that handed him a three-year sentence in the Toshakhana case. As a result of this conviction, Imran cannot hold office for five years. No more MNA, no more PM. He's done and dusted as far as this electoral round is concerned.

2. There's more bad news for his followers. Imran Khan will likely spend quite some time in jail. This means he loses the only real weapon he brandished: communication with the world. No more tweets, no more TikToks, no more YouTube speeches. His silence will heavily impact the morale, strategy and direction of PTI and its supporters.

3. In jail, Imran Khan will be cut-off from his second-tier leadership and, therefore, will not be able to make decisions that are crucial for the party at this stage. This may especially affect the party's electoral strategy, including awarding of tickets. His absence from the campaign trail may cripple the effectiveness of the PTI.

READ MORE: The Carousel Of Pakistan’s Political History Continues Spinning…

4. There could be relief in store for him if his appeal is accepted by the higher courts and the verdict is suspended. In that case, his legal woes may continue, but he may have a slim chance of remaining un-convicted in the other cases till the elections. If he can campaign and actually be on the ballot, that could upend many calculations. This is why this remains an unlikely scenario. There are two reasons for this:

(i) Entangled in many cases, which are at different stages of the legal process, Khan may find it very difficult to evade conviction in all of them. This means that even if his appeals in the Toshakhana case are accepted by the higher courts, the relief for him could be short-lived. But these other cases may take time to mature till a final decision. True. With the National Assembly being dissolved this coming week, elections were to be held in early November, keeping in mind the 90 days constitutional limit. Khan may have benefited from the long-drawn legal process and may have hoped to scrape through till elections and lead his party into them. But things changed Saturday.
If the soft and meek video message of vice chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi is reflective of what lies in store, the party may resign itself to the fate that it has brought upon itself

(ii) They changed through the decision of the Council of Common Interests CCI to allow the Election Commission of Pakistan to conduct delimitation of constituencies on the basis of the new census as opposed to the 2017 one. This delimitation process cannot be completed within the 90-day limit for the elections. We may now be looking at elections sometime in February 2024. This means two more months in which Khan can be convicted in various other cases and be forced out of the elections.

5. With Imran in jail, PTI could go into a tailspin. The situation in the party and among its second-tier leadership will become obvious in a day or two. If the soft and meek video message of vice chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi is reflective of what lies in store, the party may resign itself to the fate that it has brought upon itself. In fact, the question of who will make decisions about the party will become the biggest challenge for PTI in the coming days. With key people like Asad Umar, Pervaiz Khattak and a few others out of the party's fold for all practical purposes, Shah Mehmood Qureshi will try to take up the mantle on the basis of his title as the vice chairman. But there could be complications.

READ MORE: The Political Assassination Of PTI

6. Imran's key loyalists, like Hammad Azhar and Murad Saeed, remain in hiding and, therefore, cannot provide the leadership that the party now needs. Will they coalesce around Shah Mehmood? The party's internal dynamics suggest otherwise. Even at the best of times, with Imran fully in command, the second-tier leadership would be constantly at each other's throats. If Imran can somehow get relief from the higher courts within a relatively short period – a big 'if' – he may be able to maintain coherence within PTI. But if he is in jail for even a few months, the party would start to wobble under the weight of competing and contrasting leadership claims and power plays.

7. The fissures and fractures inside the PTI will become even more pronounced with Imran in jail. The second-tier leadership of the party now finds itself involuntarily divided into the following categories:

(i) those who are still with the party and in visible leadership positions. People in this category are Shah Mehmood, Asad Qaisar etc., who can still attend meetings, chair them and make decisions;
PTI is better off having rid itself of carpetbaggers. They represented the worst in the party and contributed to Imran's ruination

(ii) those who are with Imran and in hiding and therefore are operating under severe constraints. They face certain arrest and, therefore, can only be effective through digital communication. Their relative silence has already weakened their effectiveness. People in this category are Hammad Azhar, Murad Saeed and a handful of others. Both Hammad and Murad have proven their loyalty and contrasted their mettle against lightweight turncoats like Fawad Chaudhry, Shirin Mazari, Imran Ismail etc. This is why if PTI has to rescue itself from the predicament it has brought upon itself, people like Hammad and Murad will need to step up – and grow up;

(iii) those who were in important decision-making positions in PTI but have been press-conferenced out of the party. They sport sullen faces and yet maintain they have not left the party. They are in political purgatory. But they are a living reminder of the unstickiness of the glue that held the party together. Asad Umar is a prime example. So are people like Maleeka Bukhari and some others. This category of people may try to elbow their way somehow into having a say in party affairs, but it appears almost impossible that they will succeed.

READ MORE: Fixing Imran Khan

8. If there's any good news for the PTI in these bleak times, it is that lightweights and carpetbaggers like Fawad Chaudhry and Shirin Mazari have shown their true colours and abandoned Imran at the time of his greatest need. Such people were always the weakest link in the party, and many inside the party used to warn Imran about the deviousness and untrustworthiness of such lightweights, but he ignored these warnings. Bad news for him. But PTI is better off having rid itself of such carpetbaggers. They represented the worst in the party and contributed to Imran's ruination. Now they're living comfortably in their plush houses while the leader they betrayed sits in a small cell in Attock jail.

9. From this coming week, the news cycle will be dominated by the following:

(i) Caretakers,

(ii) PML-N party meetings after stepping out of government,

(iii) Maryam Nawaz's presence or absence in electoral activity,

(iv) PTI chairman appeals and legal woes (v) tidbits of news from inside Attock jail

(vi) ECP activity. The glaring omission will be Khan's absolute absence from the scene. The political universe will look and sound very different.

10. The big questions that will frame the politics of the next few weeks will be:

(i) Will elections be held within 90 days?

(ii) Will they be held till February?

(iii) Could they be delayed beyond that?

(iv) Will Khan hear the election results in Attock or Zaman Park?

(v) Will Nawaz Sharif return before the elections are announced?

(vi) Who will be the PML-N candidate for PM?

(vii) How will the new chief justice change things?

(viii) Will Dr Arif Alvi have a leading role in PTI while Khan is out of the picture?

(ix) Will PTI be on the ballot box?

(x) Will PML-N be able to form a government without the PPP?

Let the games begin.

The writer is a political commentator.