Shortcuts / 08 February 2024

Imran Khan and Pakistan’s Election

Pakistan’s former PM Imran Khan has received several jail sentences in the lead-up to Pakistan’s general election, which is on today. By Khan’s telling, this is about Pakistan’s military keeping him and his supporters out of power. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we’ll look at Pakistan’s political history, Imran Khan’s rise to power, and what might happen in this election…

I’m up for it, but just tell me why Pakistan should be on my radar?
It’s the world’s fifth most populous country, with 231 million people… And it’s a country that has nuclear weapons and volatile relationships in the Asia-Middle East region. So knowing a bit about Pakistan can only be a good thing.

OK. Give me the lay of the land…
The first big thing to note is that Pakistan’s military has played a huge role in the country’s politics, and continues to do so today. That story goes all the way back to Pakistan’s independence, which happened in 1947. Pakistan was part of the colony of British India until after WWII when that part of the world was divided into an independent Indian state and an independent Pakistani state.

What happened next?
Pakistan adopted a Westminster-ish system of government, but it didn’t last. By the early 1950s, there were tensions between the prime minister at the time and the governor-general, and in 1953, the PM was dismissed

Quite the start for the country…
Exactly. That dismissal has been described as setting a real precedent for Pakistan’s politics, which, over the next several decades, see-sawed between military and civilian rule. Throughout this time, there have also been allegations of corruption and cronyism thrown around, as well as assassinations…

A military leader was assassinated in 1988, which returned the country to civilian rule. Then Pakistan’s famous female leader Benazir Bhutto was killed in 2007. Bhutto was the first woman to be elected to lead a Muslim-majority country, and her death was a big deal. It led to protests and a surge in support for her former party in the 2008 elections. Pakistan has been under civilian rule since those 2008 elections.

Has it been smooth sailing?
Absolutely not; the allegations of corruption are still a live issue. One example is from 2016, when the Prime Minister of Pakistan at the time, Nawaz Sharif, was named in the Panama Papers (those were the huge leak of documents that showed leaders from around the world engaged in tax avoidance and corruption). At the time Pakistan’s Supreme Court banned PM Sharif from holding public office.

Not smooth sailing at all…
The Sharif/Panama Papers ruling paved the way for another change in power. This time, an anti-corruption opposition politician seized the issue and rode it to electoral success in 2018. He was none other than Pakistan’s most famous cricket star, Imran Khan…

There’s that name…
Let’s talk quickly about who Khan is. As a cricket player, he was a sensation. He captained the national team through a successful period from the early 1980s into the 1990s. Even during this time, Khan had public political opinions, but he made it official in 1996 when he set up a political party called the PTI or the Pakistan Movement for Justice.

What were their policies?
The stated aims of the PTI are to move Pakistan towards an egalitarian and modern welfare state, and to implement anti-corruption laws. Khan began working on this vision after he became PM in 2018, and he also had a distinctive foreign policy stance. He moved Pakistan away from the United States and towards Islamic Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as re-establishing ties with Russia.

Interesting… what about domestic issues?
This is where things get juicy. In April 2022, the opposition parties banded together and passed a no-confidence motion against Khan: their central claim was that Khan’s government was performing poorly on economic and social matters.

So Khan was kicked out?
He sure was. Khan initially claimed that the United States was actually pulling strings behind the scenes to get him kicked out of the leadership, and while there’s no evidence to support that claim, it did fire up protests around the country.

Please, the drama was really only just beginning. Over the next few years, Khan was hit with dozens upon dozens of criminal cases, many of them alleging corruption during his time in office. He was also shot in the leg in an assassination attempt.

Oh, wow…
By the time it gets to 2023, Khan is arrested over one of the criminal corruption cases, which, again, led to widespread riots from his supporters. But that didn’t stop Khan from being sentenced to 3 years in jail for selling state gifts. That was only the first case, too; since then he’s received jail sentences in several other cases, including, most recently, a 7-year sentence for violating marriage laws in Pakistan.

What does all of this mean for the general election?
The first thing to note is that election observers do not have high hopes for this election. Because of the crackdown on Imran Khan and his supporters, some watchers have said that it is one of the least credible elections in Pakistan’s history. But so far it’s looking like a familiar name could return to power…

Who’s that?
Remember Nawaz Sharif? He was the Prime Minister just before Imran Khan, the one who was caught up in the Panama Papers. Despite all the odds, it looks like he could emerge on top at this week’s election.

Big twist! Why is that?
For one, it looks like his relationship with the military has been patched over, and they’re lending him background support in this week’s election.

OK, sounds like it could be quite a day…
An absolutely fascinating one to watch.

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