Pakistan Election 2024

4 February 2024

Pakistan Election 2024

By Gwynne Dyer

Pakistan’s former prime minister, former cricket superstar and latter-day populist politician Imran Khan was having a quiet week in jail, six months into his three-year sentence for corruption, and suddenly all hell broke loose.

Last Tuesday he was given another 10-year jail sentence for leaking state secrets (to wit, an official report by Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington of a conversation with two US State Department officials).

On Wednesday, another court gave both him and his wife Bushra Bibi 14-year jail sentences on another corruption charge for allegedly selling official gifts he had been given while in office (four Rolex watches, an expensive pen, some cufflinks) and keeping the proceeds.

And on Friday another court sentenced him and his wife to eight years in prison for getting married too soon after his wife divorced her previous husband in 2018. Islam says a woman must wait three months before remarrying. They say she did wait; her ex-husband says she didn’t (although he only mentioned it recently).

Did the poor man have that on his conscience all these years? Or did he only ‘remember’ it when the army asked him to?

All this is happening because there is a parliamentary election in Pakistan next Thursday. Imran Khan has already been banned from running in it, and thousands of members of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI – Pakistan Movement for Justice) have been arrested or simply disappeared in order to deter his supporters from voting.

And just to make sure that his party doesn’t win the election – which it might do on a free vote – the courts have banned the use of the PTI’s cricket-bat symbol on the ballot. The PTI gets the votes of the poor, who are most likely to be illiterate (40% of the adult population can’t read), and without the cricket bat they won’t know whom to vote for.

Pakistan is the world capital of cynicism. Everybody knows that a coalition of the other parties, fronted by another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, will win this election because he has the army’s blessing – just as Imran Khan had the army’s blessing when he became prime minister six years ago.

Imran Khan is in jail now mainly because he lost the army’s support when he challenged its overweening power in both politics and the economy. But he should not despair, for his replacement, Nawaz Sharif, has gone through the same cycle and is now having a happy ending (at least temporarily).

Like Khan, Sharif was a legally elected prime minister who was brought down by various corruption charges when the army turned against him. He got out of the country before the obedient courts delivered their final verdicts, sat out his disgrace in London – and now he’s back!

The army needed a replacement for Khan, so Sharif’s criminal convictions were rapidly dismissed, he came home again, and soon he’ll be prime minister once more. But the wheel will keep turning, because nobody can fix what ails Pakistan without breaking the political and economic power of the army. And nobody can break that.

A quarter of a billion Pakistanis are trapped in this loop because the country sees itself as being in a permanent confrontation with India, which has six times the population and twelve times the GDP. So long as that vision prevails, Pakistan’s army will be seen as indispensable and its position as the final arbiter of everything will be unchallengeable.

The conflict imposes a far lesser burden on India, which has never experienced direct military rule. (Pakistan has spent almost half its history being ruled by generals.) But it was always impossible for Pakistan to decide that India is not an existential threat, because if it isn’t then why did they have to partition the old British-ruled India at all?

In addition, the current Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party is doing its best to reshape India into the anti-Muslim, Hindu nationalist state that Pakistanis have always claimed it was. Modi will win his third straight election in April/May, and by the end of that term the claim will be true.

Imran Khan was never going to change all that. He didn’t even want to. For all his desire to curb the army’s arrogant manipulation of Pakistan’s politics, he never questioned the perpetual confrontation with India that made a militarised state necessary. That allegedly even made nuclear weapons necessary.

He may even be back in power one of these days. He is still a very popular politician (57% approval in the last credible opinion poll), and we already know he is willing to make deals with the army.

The army giveth and the army taketh away. Blessed be the names of the generals.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“Did…to”; and “And just…for”)