Skidding Off the Rails

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Late last month, courts in Pakistan in different rulings convicted ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan on charges of revealing state secrets and corruption, sentencing him to 14- and 12-year terms in prison around a week before Pakistani voters went to the polls to elect a new parliament. That followed charges of violating Pakistan’s marriage laws, for which he and his wife Bushra Bibi – also convicted of corruption – were sentenced just this Saturday to seven years in prison.

The ruling was yet another example of why the Brookings Institution described the South Asian country’s democracy as “badly damaged.”

Khan, an Oxford-educated former cricket star who left office in 2022, was already serving a three-year sentence on other corruption charges, reported the Associated Press. He faces 150 other cases, too. He is still a politically powerful political force in Pakistan, however, due to his personal popularity, his leadership of the Pakistan Tahreek-i-Insaf (PTI) political party, and his outspoken criticism of Pakistan’s political elites.

Khan and his allies – including those who have also faced criminal charges, wrote the Jurist – claim the government is targeting them to undercut the PTI’s chances at the polls.

“My party’s leaders, workers and social-media activists, along with supportive journalists, were abducted, incarcerated, tortured and pressured to leave the PTI,” Khan wrote in a prison letter published in the Economist. “Many of them remain locked up, with new charges being thrown at them every time the courts give them bail or set them free.”

Others have noted, for example, that Internet outages occurred, coincidentally, when the party was holding virtual rallies and other social media events, added Nikkei Asia. Election officials even barred the party from using its signature cricket bat symbol while electioneering on “technical grounds,” Al Jazeera noted.

The elites whom Khan threatens appear to be coalescing around another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. He left office in 2017 due to corruption charges. He fled the country to avoid justice, but successfully appealed to have the charges overturned.

His rehabilitation doesn’t necessarily lend credence to the vote, however, say analysts. Nawaz’s strength indicates how the military, rather than the electorate, is in firm control of Pakistan, argued Thompson Rivers University political scientist Saira Bano in the Conversation. Generals have played kingmaker in the country for its 76 years of independence. They supported Khan when Sharif attempted to broker more peaceful relations with India, Pakistan’s historic nemesis. Ousted either by the military or courts, Sharif has held the highest office three times. Incidentally, in 2018, Khan won while Sharif was in jail.

Then Khan sought to challenge their power. “Sharif, a person who faces serious credibility allegations due to unaccountable overseas wealth, is once again the darling of the establishment as a much-needed alternative to the disruptive populism of Khan,” the East Asia Forum explained.

In Pakistan, which faces an array of political, economic and military issues, no prime minister has ever managed to complete their five-year term in office. Maybe that’s because, as the Wall Street Journal noted, that’s “the political rollercoaster ride that is Pakistani politics.”

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