A specter is haunting the Pakistan Army — the specter of Imran Khan.
The former Pakistan prime minister has been imprisoned since August, after being summarily convicted on charges of concealment of wealth.
Over the year that preceded Khan’s imprisonment, the army threw the kitchen sink at the ex-cricketer and his Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party, including abductions, assassination attempts, and sex tapes.
But the more at Khan they threw, the more his popularity grew. In a public opinion poll conducted in December, a whopping 66 percent of respondents said they would vote for Khan’s PTI. That would translate to a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.
The opposition to Khan — the senior army brass, its proxies, and fair-weather friends among the rest of the political class — have done a poor job at governing the country despite having unfettered powers. Inflation has soared since Khan’s ouster in April 2022. It remains at around 30 percent today.
General elections are scheduled for February 8. The PTI is a shell of its former self. Its senior ranks have been kidnapped and forced to leave the party. Many of the few who remain with Khan are, like him, behind bars.
Despite all this, the Pakistan Army fears that Khan’s battered PTI could still come out on top in the polls. As election day comes closer, its desperation to stop Khan’s party and replace him with another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, grows.
The Army Is Unnerved
Khan today may be Pakistan’s prime prisoner, but he still commands star power. Last week, The Economist published an article authored by him in which he rails against the caretaker government and army for denying his party “its basic right to campaign.” The elections he warned, will be a “disaster and a farce.”
As it has done several times in recent weeks, Pakistan’s military-backed caretaker government overreacted to PTI offering proof of life — with counterproductive effect. The caretaker information minister, Murtaza Solangi, protested the decision of The Economist to publish Khan.
Solangi’s tweets only served to make Khan’s article go viral. Eight tweets of the article by The Economist have gained roughly 28 million impressions.
The Pakistani regime is so unnerved by Khan’s popularity that it banned New Year’s celebrations lest they become outpourings of support for the ex-prime minister. Indeed, several impromptu gatherings took place across Pakistan, which turned into mini-rallies for Khan.
The Pakistani government has also resorted to multiple social media shutdowns to obstruct PTI virtual gatherings.
Denied the right to hold public gatherings, PTI opted for a “virtual rally” in December. The social media shutdown by Pakistan’s telecom authority only gave the event more attention. “Millions,” party officials say, took part in the online event, which concluded with a speech read by an AI-generated voice of Khan.
Pakistan’s election commission has also denied Khan’s party the right to use a cricket bat as a ballot symbol, representing Khan’s long cricket career that culminated with a World Cup win under his captaincy. (Election symbols are important because of widespread illiteracy in Pakistan.)
Clearly, what the army is fighting is now an idea, a symbol, and a feeling. Khan is a phantom who haunts them from prison.
A Selection Not An Election
The army is a regular meddler in Pakistan’s elections. It generally attempts to tilt the balance in favor of its preferred civilians or against those it wholly opposes. But the level of interference this time around is unprecedented, according to observers who are by no means friendly to Khan.
Tariq Khosa, a retired senior law enforcement official, described Pakistan’s upcoming polls as an “undemocratic farce.”
Farhatullah Babar, a respected former senator of the Pakistan Peoples Party, said that Pakistani elections “have almost always been manipulated but seldom on the scale as in 2024.”
The army-backed election commission has denied PTI’s most viable candidates the right to run for office. Chatter of another delay in the elections grows. If the polls take place, they will be a selection, not an election.
The army is paving the way for the return of Sharif, a former three-time prime minister who’s butted heads with it in his previous terms in power. The army chief, General Asim Munir, is betting that Sharif can help reach detente with India and stabilize Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province and a former Sharif stronghold lost to Khan.
But stability will be elusive as long as it requires the fearsome repression Pakistan is witnessing these days. The lesson for the Pakistan Army’s senior brass since its fateful ouster of Khan in 2022, is that it can plot all it wants, but it has, in the end, lost the plot.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.