11 February 2024

With Imran Khan Jailed, Pakistan’s Election May Be Torpid, But the Aftermath Might Not Be

Joshua Kurlantzick

As I noted in several prior blogs
, Pakistan’s upcoming election this week has already turned into a farce, one that is not free or fair. The military and its judicial allies have essentially ended the career of Imran Khan, still the country’s most popular politician, according to recent polling, and one of the first to ever challenge the military directly. Khan’s confrontation with the military has channeled a wave of Pakistani anger at how the armed forces have dominated politics for years, resulting in protests against military installations that would have been unheard of in the past.

As a result, there is little chance that Khan’s party, which has been hobbled in numerous other ways, will make any significant inroads in parliament. Last week, party members were shot and killed in what some party members say was a “targeted killing.” In addition, other members of Khan’s party have been arrested or barred from leaving the country, perhaps in anticipation of future arrests.

Instead, the way has been cleared for Nawaz Sharif, the ultimate survivor of Pakistani politics, to become prime minister and for his party to gain control of parliament with the armed forces supporting them. Sharif is a man who is, shall we say, flexible in his policy views and approach toward the military and has faced numerous corruption charges for years. Moreover, China is essentially backing the armed forces since Beijing will do anything to preserve stability in Pakistan, one of its most important partners in the world.

Because this seems so preordained, the usual festivities, active campaigning, and yes—fights, attacks, and other types of election-related violence—accompanying prior elections have been tamped down considerably. The public seems to understand that the fix is in and has responded to the election campaign accordingly.

But the electorate, if quiet for now, can always be volatile in Pakistan, especially with both Khan in jail and a new government facing crises on so many fronts: security crises, the ongoing energy crisis that continues to roil Pakistan and hurt average Pakistanis and the economy writ large, a demographic crisis, the growing Islamization of the population, and a lack of decent-paying jobs for a large number of young people. Pakistan’s latest IMF bailout is about to run out. Whoever wins the election—Sharif, no doubt—will have to convince the Fund to extend or even increase the bailout despite the political environment, years of economic mismanagement, and prior IMF bailouts. China can help—it has devoted vast sums to aid and infrastructure building in Pakistan, but Beijing faces its own economic problems right now, and has been dialing back some of its overseas lending and investment.

And though Khan may be in jail, there is a long history of Pakistani politicians continuing to maintain a grip on the population behind bars, and even of dramatic turns of events (like Sharif suddenly returning after years in exile) that would lead one to think Khan might not be counted out, and that his followers will continue to agitate even after the election. Sharif (or perhaps another election victor, although unlikely) will inherit an unstable situation from the get-go while also having to placate the military at every turn.

No comments: