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Pakistan seen headed for instability as Imran Khan emerges frontrunner amid poll rigging charges

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It has been a long journey for the former cricketer, who launched the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or movement for justice, over two decades ago. 

New Delhi: Imran Khan is all set to be the next Prime Minister of Pakistan, but the truth is that even the benign hand of the military establishment has so far not been able to push him towards a simple majority, as Nawaz Sharif’s loyal voters in Punjab have somehow managed to stop him in his citadel.

Pakistan, in fact, seems set for a prolonged dose of instability, with several of the small and big political parties ready to contest the election results.

With rivals, from the Pakistan Muslim League (N) of Sharif brothers Nawaz and Shehbaz, to Fazl-ur Rehman’s Jamaat-i-Islami and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), alleging massive rigging and collusion, Khan’s journey from his palatial home in Bani Gala to the prime minister’s architecturally unaffected residence in the heart of Pakistan’s capital is likely to be anything but smooth.

At 9.30 am Thursday, Pakistan’s Geo TV reported that Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was leading with 122 seats, while the PML (N) was ahead in 60. The PPP was third with 35 seats.

But despite several hours of counting after polls closed at 5.30 pm IST Wednesday, not a single winner has still been announced. Social media is rife with accusations that polling agents had been evicted from booths and the Election Commission’s Form 45, which stamps the conclusive end of the polling, “disappeared”.

The well-known political commentator and former politician Mushahid Hussain said :

Hamid Mir, Pakistan’s best-known journalist pointed out:

Meanwhile, Talat Hussain, another top Pakistani commentator, added:

In the 272-member national assembly, a party needs 137 seats to stake claim to form a government on its own. Another 70 seats in the house are reserved for women and minorities.

But what is equally significant is the breakthrough the PTI has made in Punjab, with a lead in 96 seats as compared to the PML(N), which was barely ahead in 104 seats as of 6.30 am. The Sharifs’ fort hasn’t crumbled yet, but it seems pretty battered.

Khan’s transformation from world-class cricketer to international playboy to conservative politician to likely prime minister has kept the world hooked to his aging, if somewhat bedraggled, glamour.

A book by his former wife, Reham Khan, which came out in the last weeks of the campaign, certainly roiled the mix, especially when Sharif flew back home last week to be arrested on charges of corruption.

But despite Reham’s allegations of drugs and multiple-partner sex set to several kinds of music, including rock and roll, Pakistan’s military establishment, in a late surge, seems to have delivered the country to her former husband.

But even as the flashbulbs went off, Khan couldn’t hold his own highly choreographed script together. Voting in Islamabad Wednesday, Khan stamped his ballot in full view of his adoring public, thereby likely rendering it infructuous. Election rules presuppose a secret ballot.

No matter. Khan has four more constituencies he is contesting to choose from where he wants his political debut.

The resultant chaos means that if and when Khan forms the government, it will be leavened with a strong dose of instability. Certainly, that is the last thing the Pakistani “miltestablishment”, determined not to let go of the country’s key policies towards India, Afghanistan and the US, will want.

Earlier on the election day, Khan had seemed ready to give it up for “the boys”, another euphemism referring to the intelligence agencies in Pakistan’s colourful linguistic landscape.

“India only has one motive, which is to weaken the Pakistani army. Nawaz Sharif has always helped India. He will only protect Indian interests, not Pakistan. But my vafadaari (loyalty) will always be with Pakistan,” Khan told journalists.

In an interview during the elections, he remained focused on the troubles in Jammu & Kashmir, in line with Rawalpindi’s thinking.

“There is a freedom movement going on in Kashmir. India blames Pakistan for that… (The India-Pakistan) relationship is the worst since Modi came (to power). It is a very hardline government… Kashmir… the atrocities of Indian troops, the violations of the Indian army…the whole subcontinent (is) held hostage to the Kashmir issue,” he said.

A besieged chair

In Pakistan’s 71-year-long history, not one of its prime ministers has been able to complete their full five-year term. Sharif, now in Adiala jail on charges of corruption, was ousted by the Supreme Court last July, in what amounted to a judicial coup, when he had just a year left to go.

With the Supreme Court declaring Sharif dishonest and untruthful (not ‘sadiq’ and ‘ameen’) and therefore not fit to rule, Khan, as the establishment’s ladla, or favourite, became the obvious front-runner.

By now, he had come out in favour of keeping the controversial Section 295C, popularly known as the “blasphemy” law, in the constitution. Introduced during the repressive regime of Zia-ul-Haq, this section allowed the strictest punishment to be meted out to any Pakistani seen to be in any way impugning the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him).

Khan’s views on the blasphemy law became known soon after the then governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated in 2011 by his own fundamentalist security guard, Mumtaz Qadri, who said Taseer had defended a Christian woman who had allegedly blasphemed the Prophet.

Meanwhile, the moniker ‘Taliban Khan” has stuck – despite the PTI’s manifesto promise that it will wipe out corruption from Pakistan, improve civic conditions, especially drinking water, health and education, which will be critical building blocks in his #NayaPakistan.

An election survey conducted by Pakistan’s English daily Dawn earlier this month revealed that younger voters were likelier to vote for the PTI. Perhaps, Pakistan’s youthful population – according to a UNDP report, 64 per cent of the population is below the age of 30, and 29 per cent between the ages of 15 and 29 years – has something to do with Khan’s win. Certainly, Khan and the PTI think so.

But despite his philanthropic activities, led by the Shaukat Khanum cancer hospital in Lahore that he built in his mother’s memory, Khan has continued to defend regressive forces, most recently the Taliban against NATO, who he considers are “Western liberals thirsty for blood”.

Critics said he was only following the line laid down by his mentors in the Pakistani military establishment.

The journey to the top

Still, from the time he took the Pakistani cricket team to World Cup victory to imminent political power in 2018, the Pakhtun leader has certainly worked hard.

He founded the PTI in 1996 on the planks of people’s welfare, credible leadership, and uprooting corruption from the system. His first political success, which came at snail’s pace, was in 2002, when he became a member of the national assembly from Mianwali, his hometown.

In 2008, when military dictator General Pervez Musharraf decided to step down and conduct elections, the PTI alleged that the polls were fraudulent and boycotted them.

It was only in 2013 that Khan’s party made a significant dent in Pakistani politics. Forming an alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami and Qaumi Watan parties, the PTI came to power in the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

In the national elections that were held simultaneously, the PTI won an impressive 31 parliamentary seats, 300 per cent more than what it did in the 2002 polls. It was now the third largest party in the country and second largest in the Punjab province.

But Khan was not content with the results and alleged that the elections were rigged. He led the ‘Azadi March’ from 14 August to 17 December 2014, demanding a thorough probe into the results. He called off the protest after the Peshawar school attack in December 2014.

In 2016, the PTI-led government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa decided to give Rs 300 million from its budget to Darul Uloom Haqqania, a madrassa known as ‘the university of jihad’, which has produced top Taliban leaders, including its former chief Mullah Omar. Khan was widely criticised.

All through his turn towards the political and personal right, including a marriage less than a year ago to his third wife Bushra Maneka, said to have been his spiritual adviser, Khan picked his political priorities.

A free media was not one of them. As the state cracked down on the Pakistani media in the run-up to this election, blocking TV broadcasts and keeping newspapers out of bounds in several cities and small towns, Khan kept very quiet.

As he waits and watches for that same media to declare him leading the fray in this highly divisive election, it is clear that Pakistan has taken another step towards controlled democracy.

With inputs from Alind Chauhan and Prateek Gupta

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