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Imran Khan’s fate depends on Pakistan’s economy. If it falters more, he will be popular again

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Anyone expecting chaos and mayhem on Pakistan’s streets following the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan’s arrest on Saturday 5 August in Lahore must have been disappointed. There was silence and people went about their business.

This was not the case on 9 May or earlier in March when the cricketer-turned-politician’s supporters took on the State in a manner that almost looked like a civil war situation. While on 9 May, military buildings were attacked, in March the PTI supporters threw petrol bombs at Punjab police to thwart their efforts to arrest the former PM. Later, the army and the government built a case and a narrative against Khan, accusing him of punishable rebellion against the state.

Delay in elections

The gagging and use of force that ensued has ensured that people dare not get out on the streets because if they did the dispensation escalate things—they will be accused of terrorism against the State. The recent civil court judgment in the Toshakhana case has aimed at diluting Khan’s reputation as a politician fighting against corruption. The court has accused Khan of engaging in corruption as he allegedly mis-declared assets to the election commission and lied about selling state gifts.

However, neither the wording of the judgment nor the silence on the streets indicate any change in the mindset of Khan’s supporters or the general observer. The arrest may, in fact, add to Khan’s popularity, which is like a check that can only be cashed if there are free and fair elections in the country—an occurrence not expected any time soon. Khan had started his protest demanding early elections. But it is an unlikely event given that the Council of Common Interests (CCI), a body meant to resolve issues among the four federating units of the country, has approved the 2023 population census. It means that Pakistan’s election commission will now delay elections as it will have to redraw constituencies based on the latest census. But the process of redrawing constituencies is fraught with issues and it will generate a new controversy. According to historian Yaqoob Bangash, any new seat in parliament added due to redrawing of constituencies will have to be approved by the National Assembly, which is impossible at the moment.  There are caretaker governments operating in at least two provinces (Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtukhwa) which means that a new law cannot be framed. For sure, any controversy will help Khan not dumb his reputation down.

While there is a lack of clarity regarding when elections will be held next, the more optimistic observers now feel it could be next year in March. The time between now and next year will probably be spent breaking down and pushing back Khan’s support base and his party further. In any case, unless the higher courts overturn the current judgment and provide Khan some relief, he will remain disqualified from contesting elections. The Khan-friendly Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial—who seems to have run out of his passionate defence of the PTI leader—is about to retire in September and a lot will depend upon the next man. Even if the higher courts become active, the process of providing relief in itself is arduous and would take time. It will not help Khan make it to the next parliament.

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