Despite​ the efforts of Pakistan’s army, chiefs of police and civil servants to rig the results in favour of the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan People’s Party, the vehicles of the country’s two political dynasties, the Sharifs and the Bhuttos (whose sordid history I’ve discussed in this paper on many occasions), Imran Khan triumphed in the general election of 8 February.* Khan won the last elections in Pakistan in 2018, but lost power after a confidence vote in April 2022. Just before this year’s election, he was sentenced on charges of corruption (fourteen years), leaking state secrets (ten years) and marriage law violations (seven years); he faces many more charges. He had already been blocked from standing in the election and the candidates of his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (the Movement for Justice), had to stand as independents. Nonetheless, Khan’s party emerged as the largest in the National Assembly, with 93 seats. All the signs had pointed to an even better result for the PTI, and it now seems clear that without ballot-rigging it would have been very close to an overall majority: the PTI claims it won 154 seats; 169 are needed for a majority. Since the validity of many results is under challenge in the courts, no final results can be declared. There is always some chicanery in Pakistan’s elections, but this time the army went too far. Spontaneous demonstrations have erupted in every province.

Nine days after the elections, a sensation rocked the country. The intelligence service (the ISI) shut down mobile and internet services, as it had done on election day, but the news still spread like a prairie fire. The senior civil servant supervising the elections in Rawalpindi, Liaquat Ali Chattha, had resigned and told a press conference that he had supervised the ‘manipulation’ of the results in his city. In a handwritten statement given to Dawn, Pakistan’s paper of record, he confirmed that he was ‘deeply involved in serious crime like mega election rigging 2024’. Chattha said that pro-PTI independents who had actually won their seats by between 70,000 and 80,000 votes had been ‘made to lose by putting on fake stamps’. Asked whether he had been put under pressure to remain silent, he said he had contemplated suicide but decided to go public instead because he ‘could not become a part of breaking this country’.

‘I should be punished for the injustice I have done,’ he said, ‘and others who were involved in this injustice should also be punished.’ The ‘others’ include the chief election commissioner and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. It took two hours for this pair to issue their denials. Asked why, they both responded that they had not been ‘watching television’. More likely, they were waiting to be told what to say. You can’t get much higher in naming and shaming unless you start naming generals. A few heads will have to roll now, and perhaps more scapegoats will be found. Pakistanis were astonished. A senior civil servant whose conscience won the battle? Unheard of. Some cynics speculated that Chattha himself was the designated scapegoat and had jumped before he was pushed: he was in any case due to retire in March. This was not my impression watching his press conference. He seemed shaken by what he had done.

The army has been busy organising a coalition of the defeated. But there is a flutter of excitement in the country, visible on the faces of young people demonstrating outside polling stations where the ballot-rigging was particularly crude. Having observed the degree of support for the PTI, the judiciary might not be willing to just obey the army or its many relays. Khan’s call for new elections to be held in contested seats is popular and could be difficult to resist after Chattha’s confession. The Sharif brothers and the Bhutto family made a serious mistake in taking office with the backing of the military in 2022 rather than calling for a general election. I’m told that Nawaz Sharif (then in self-exile in London, fleeing from the many court cases against him, since he too fell out with the army) advised his younger brother, Shahbaz, to do precisely that, but Shahbaz wanted to be prime minister and did what the army asked. He will have another chance at the job now: on 21 February it was announced that Shahbaz is the prime ministerial candidate of the anti-PTI coalition, helped back into government by the army and the Zardari-Bhutto clan (reduced to a provincial rump in Sindh). But with the country in a dire economic state, the class divide wider than it’s ever been and just under half a million children dying of poverty (malnutrition, lack of hygiene, lack of health facilities) every year, anything could trigger a mass explosion. The frustration of electoral hopes, yet again, by the state could lead to anger on the streets.

As I write this, I can almost hear the voices of the Imranophobes: ‘Imran did the same. Yes, he did. He got the backing of the army.’ This is true, and I have been critical of him for this and many other avoidable own goals, let alone his total failure to improve living conditions, create a social safety net and bring corruption under control. So what explains his popularity? Not simply the fact that he was removed from office by the army at the behest of the US, though that is not unimportant. At demonstrations in major cities crowds chant: ‘Any friend (yaar) of America is a traitor (Ghadar), a traitor.’ Biden’s support for live-streamed genocide has left most of the country disgusted with ‘Western civilisation’, and Khan’s recent prison statement on Gaza was tougher and more coherent than the homilies of his rivals.

Unlike the members of the dynastic outfits, Khan fought back. He refused to leave the country. His party triumphed in crucial by-elections in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, soon after he was toppled, an early indication that he couldn’t be got rid of so easily. He took on the army, attacking generals by name and identifying the ISI officer he claimed was behind the assassination attempt on him in November 2022. It is alleged that he encouraged his supporters to firebomb the residence of the corps commander in the Lahore cantonment last year and to carry out a symbolic attack on military GHQ in Rawalpindi. This was foolish, but won him some public support since the entire country is aware that the uniforms run the show. All this meant that the election cell of the ISI was determined to inflict a definitive defeat this time.

At the time, I wondered whether Khan had been encouraged to try these tactics by his fanbase inside the army. Strategically, it was an attempt to engineer a split in the army ranks, but it failed, and he and his foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, together with many others, were imprisoned. Not even Zulfikar Ali Bhutto attempted such a direct assault on the army, though given the period and the defeat the army had suffered in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), he might have been more successful. Instead, Bhutto tried to manipulate the generals, who hanged him in 1979 after a rigged trial.

Using the judiciary to lock up Khan on trivialities, technicalities and a treason charge had only one purpose: to keep him out of the picture. The treason charge, incidentally, concerned a cable from a Pakistani diplomat in the Washington embassy to his superiors in Islamabad. The secret Khan divulged? He repeated what a State Department official had said to the diplomat: that the US wanted him removed from office. This certainly wasn’t a secret in Pakistan.

The US wanted to get rid of Khan because he had welcomed their defeat in Afghanistan and refused to back sanctions against Russia. He was in Moscow on a state visit the day Putin invaded Ukraine and, asked for a reaction, said merely: ‘It’s not every day that one is so close to where history is being made.’ He said sanctions weren’t in Pakistan’s interest and asked why double standards were being applied: after all, China, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka weren’t backing the US either. Arguments for the West as the guardian of a ‘rules-based’ order might just about have stood up then, but they don’t today. The contrast in the treatment of Israel and Russia shouldn’t need to be spelled out. Even as I write, the death of Alexei Navalny (appalling though it is) is being portrayed as morally unacceptable, but the extermination of almost thirty thousand Palestinians hasn’t stopped Western leaders hobnobbing with Netanyahu or ignoring the fact that the Israeli government has done nothing to meet the demand of the ICJ that it ‘take all measures within its power’ to prevent genocide.

The State Department official, Donald Lu, is reported to have said to Pakistan’s ambassador to the US that if Khan remained ‘it will be tough going ahead.’ Such remarks are usually delivered directly to the army, which then calls recalcitrant politicians to heel. But the failed UN vote against sanctions on Russia had seriously upset Washington, which saw it as a challenge to US global hegemony. It publicly and foolishly threatened China and no doubt India’s leaders were ticked off in private. Imran Khan’s disapproval wasn’t such a big deal. Hence the low-grade State Department employee who dealt with the issue. But the US still wanted him gone. Soon after the cable was sent, General Bajwa, the army chief of staff, made a public statement on Ukraine, tilting Pakistan back towards the US. The careerists in the PTI jumped ship and began negotiating deals with the opposition. The minority parties that the ISI had pressured to get Khan a majority in parliament deserted him. Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who is quite ill, revived temporarily to join in the fun.

Khan asked the president to dissolve parliament and hold new elections within ninety days. Whatever the constitutional niceties – the opposition claimed this would amount to a ‘civilian coup’ – it would have been a more democratic outcome than a coup orchestrated by the army and the US. Now, the Sharifs and the Bhuttos again claim to be working together to ‘save the country from political instability’. To defeat Khan and his party for good was the aim of the operation in 2022. It proved a total failure. And they couldn’t win this year’s election despite controlling the judiciary, the civil service and the police.

One of the side effects of this electoral confrontation has been that, quite astonishingly, almost no fundamentalist or moderate Islamist parties are represented in the National Assembly. Despite appearances, some of them manufactured, Pakistan is not (unlike Saudi Arabia or Iran) a deeply religious state. Khan has refused to grasp this fact and needs to do so. He has chosen as his party’s nominee for prime minister Omar Ayub, the grandson of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator. His politics are malleable, and he’s not going to inspire the eager and hopeful young people who voted for the PTI. If the party manages to form a government (which seems unlikely), its supporters are bound to be disappointed. In terms of social and economic policies there is nothing to choose between the parties. Have the PTI and its leader learned anything from the last two years? I suppose they have probably realised that the army is not an umpire but the captain of all sides on the playing field.

There are other issues at stake. What Pakistan needs is not religious fundamentalism, but a real social safety net. One of the country’s leading economists, Atif Mian (much admired by the IMF), has provided a devastating account of the economy. It contracted in 2023 and ‘every macro fundamental is flashing red: inflation, growth, debt, investment, to name a few.’ According to Mian, ‘the federal government has no money, it cannot even afford to pay the salary of a peon or a soldier without borrowing … the entire government is run on deficit … no leader has a viable economic plan for the future.’

This is all true. There are solutions. The country desperately needs subsidised food and shelter, health and education plans that serve the poor. After his mother died of cancer, Khan raised private money to build an up-to-date cancer hospital in Lahore (there is now a second in Peshawar and a third is underway in Karachi), where he pledged the poor would be treated for free. Indus Hospitals, a not-for-profit organisation, which has ten hospitals in Pakistan and treats the poor free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis, is another palliative. When I asked Dr Abdul Bari, the head of this privatised small-scale national health service, why they didn’t ask for government help, he laughed in despair. ‘They ask us to help them.’ A huge military budget, corruption reaching Himalayan levels and tax avoidance by the rich don’t help, of course, but there is a much deeper problem. Imran Khan was a very good cricket captain and excelled in finding talented young cricketers who, regardless of class origins and education, were pushed through the system to the top. He has not been able to do the same in politics.

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