Come November

Come November
Imran Khan’s popularity graph in opposition is up and that of the PMLN in government is down. Since Khan hasn’t done anything extraordinary to merit greater support – if anything the PTI’s media campaign against the army and judiciary has provoked a backlash even from his own supporters -- it is the PMLN government that is in the dog house with the “awam” because of the economic hardships imposed by the IMF program. Indeed, even Nawaz and Maryam Sharif have been compelled to publicly distance themselves from the economic policies of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government. Imran Khan has also benefited from the PDM government’s decision to slap “terrorism” charges on him. Forget the small print of the anti-terrorism law that legally applies even in such situations. In the public imagination, the charges smack of victimization because a populist ex-prime minister’s “threats” at a charged public rally to take “action” against “miscreant” police officials and a “biased” judge are profoundly different from masked men blowing up innocent people or holding them hostage at gun point for avowed ideological or political reasons.

Still, Imran Khan now faces a formidable challenge to his political ambitions. There are at least five significant cases against him and he could be knocked out in any one or more of them, notwithstanding the fact that the judiciary, high and low, is tilted in his favour for much the same sort of reasons that make him popular or make the PDM’s leading components unpopular by default.

In three cases, he is charged with contempt of court. The evidence against him is substantial by comparison with the recent cases of Nihal Hashmi, Talal Chaudhry and Danial Aziz who were all convicted and disqualified by the Supreme Court from contesting elections for five years, despite the fact that all offered unqualified apologies. In Khan’s case, Fawad Chaudhry says Imran is not going to apologise, which will make the task of the SC bench and ECP hard because comparisons will be made and tilts noted and debated.

The other cases pertain to the Toshakhana purchases that were not disclosed in Khan’s tax returns or relate to the findings of the ECP’s report on Prohibited Funding in which several bank accounts referenced by Imran Khan have been discovered and no explanations have been given regarding monies received and disbursed. The incriminating yardstick here will be Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification for life based on non-disclosure in his tax returns of a “due-income” which he did not eventually receive from his son!

Khan’s problem derives from his erstwhile Miltablishment supporters. He is still targeting them for manipulating his ouster, which makes the two-way alienation bitter and irrevocable and compels the Generals to seek newer “options”. The PPP and PMLN, on the other hand, have abandoned their hostility towards the same Generals for manipulating their misfortunes earlier and have embraced them with unabashed abandon.

The situation is headed for some climactic developments. Khan is demanding quick general elections to exploit his popularity while he runs from pillar to post fending off disqualification charges. But the PDM government is digging its heels in with the help of the Miltablishment. One wild card is the mood of the people who are agitating angrily against severe inflation which has impoverished them significantly and unprecedented floods that have rendered them hungry and homeless. The other wild card is the judiciary that can flay or revive Khan’s chances of a come-back. The situation is compounded by the possibility of both a continuation of the status quo or a change in the army high command in November that could spell problems for one or the other political protagonist.

In the coming months, Imran Khan could be arrested on some count or the other. But the judiciary is likely to set him free quickly. He may be disqualified from contesting elections for contempt of court or corruption but can reasonably expect to be reprieved in the short term by “stay orders” pending appeals. But if the people don’t rise up to storm the citadels of power autonomously, his long marches will not amount to much as long as the Miltablishment continues to lend support to the PDM government. So what should we look out for?

Once the IMF, multilateral and bilateral money amounting to several billion dollars pours into the coffers of the State Bank of Pakistan in the next month or so, the Miltablishment’s compulsion to hang on to the PDM government is likely to be diminished. Should the Sharifs balk at conceding its  covert requirement in November, chances are that the government will be kicked out and caretakers summoned to do the needful. The debate will then turn on whether and when the next elections will be held and what sort of concessions will be made to the democratic yearning for a level playing field by Nawaz Sharif and a pro-PTI pitch by Imran Khan. In fact, the situation is so murky that few would hazard predicting the outcome for any party or leader in the event of continuity in the army high command or change in it. Continuity could lead to consolidation of the current anti-PTI situation and a change could usher in sincere neutrality. Or vice versa, depending on who’s the man on horseback at that time.

In the run-up to November, Imran Khan can conceivably be disqualified and the Punjab government can change hands while the federal government continues to hang on by the skin of its teeth. Alternatively, fresh general elections may be called sooner than later next year by levelling the electoral field for both Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.