Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former prime minister, is now in jail for ignoring one of the most important lessons in the country’s political history: The House wins every time. His arrest and sentencing had been ominous for months, but he failed to heed the warning signs.
It’s not his first time, though, as he has a history of missing out on opportunities as a politician. Khan had three chances to become a political force and redefine his destiny, but he chose poorly.
The first time was in 2013, when his party Pakistan Justice Instigation (PTI) gained a sizeable majority in elections, winning the third seat in the National Assembly and the first seat in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly. . Instead of training his party on the basis of electoral politics, however, Khan embarked on a tour of agitation.
Although he preached about the importance of parliaments and how Western parliamentary democracies work, he did not go the democratic route. Within a year of the election, he began 126 days of protests in front of the parliament building in an attempt to force the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His party members quit the National Assembly en masse, saying it was fraudulent. Khan also mocked the legislature and announced a campaign of civil disobedience, which included refusing to pay taxes and utility bills.
But despite alleged support from some establishment factions, the protests have failed to spark change. So Khan jumped at the chance to save face after the horrific Peshawar school attack, calling off protests in the name of national unity.
In April 2015, PTI members rejoined Parliament, taking on the role of the real opposition. But their top leader is not interested in transforming himself into a political force, nor has lengthy parliamentary debate appealed to him. He rarely engages in conversations with other political stakeholders, whom he calls thieves. Khan is only interested in polishing his own stock.
His moment came in 2017, when the Panama Papers leaked foreign companies and properties owned by the children of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Khan has become the center of media attention and a potential contender to succeed the out-of-favor Sharif. When the Supreme Court disqualified Sharif and sentenced him to 10 years in prison, Khan’s PTI became the new car park for “voters” who turned to the party seen as the most popular. The electorate’s entry into PTI and the corresponding crackdown on Sharif’s party created a favorable political environment that catapulted Khan into Pakistan’s 22nd prime minister – thus missing his second chance.
As prime minister, Khan refused to work with opposition parties, opting instead to undermine and suppress them under a quasi-dictatorship. The National Accountability Bureau’s (NAB) laws are being used to jail opposition leaders and media outlets are under intense pressure from the government to take down Sharif’s platform.
Khan defended the arrests and equated criticism of the military’s political influence with treason. PTI’s social media team and advisers attacked critics, saying they were the former ruler’s paid mouthpiece. A one-man show approach to governance – inspired by the Turkish model, where Recep Tayyip Erdogan leads in every area, and the Chinese model, where Xi Jinping uses anti-corruption to consolidate Own power – very visible in parliament, where the ruling party is very visible. Blame the opposition and refuse to discuss legislation with them. Opposition MPs kept pointing out the problems and reminding Khan that he was one of them, but their voices fell on deaf ears.
Instead, Khan relies on those in power to “get the job done” and may view parliament as an unnecessary stakeholder. For example, the decision to rehabilitate some TTP members in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was taken without significant debate in the legislature.
His autocratic instincts are also evident in party politics. The election of the chief ministers of the largest province, Punjab, and the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan, is just one example of the “one man show” model. The opposition and even PTI members have repeatedly questioned the competence of the underqualified chief minister. The chief minister has not changed, but many party members who dared to criticize have been sidelined. Within the party, Khan decided everyone’s fate. Party democracy — an approach alien to most political parties in Pakistan — remains a distant dream.
Since Khan is seen as the messiah, his supporters also don’t care about due process and defend his decision. In the eyes of Khan’s fans, those who support the leader’s words and actions are loyal to the country, while those who criticize him or debunk his half-baked solutions are traitors and corrupt. Khan — like populists in other parts of the world — stands for all that is right.
Not surprisingly, Khan’s supporters believe it would be unfair and undemocratic to oust their leader from the prime minister’s office through a no-confidence vote led by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). They immediately internalized the new conspiracy theory that the US wanted their leader removed, in part because of his position on the Russia-Ukraine war. If Khan says so, then his base of support is so, no cross-checking or proof needed. They also defended Khan’s decision not to honor Pakistan’s agreement with the IMF.
Khan steps down in April 2022, offering him a third and final chance to transform himself into a political force. Once again he missed his chance.
Khan amplified the “US-backed regime change” plot to mislead voters. His position on the role of the United States and the collusion between the PDP party and the military keeps changing; what hasn’t changed is his position that the vote of no confidence is illegal. Khan blamed then army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa for all the missteps during his reign, noting Bajwa’s involvement in regime change operations. Khan denounced the PDM government as “imported”, claiming it came to power due to US collusion with the Pakistani establishment.
Shortly after Khan was ousted, he announced that his party members were resigning from their seats in the National Assembly. Khan tried to use their legislative seats as leverage to force the government to resign and call new elections, without taking into account the mandate voters had given to PTI.
Khan’s impatience again proved disastrous. He refuses to negotiate with PDM “thieves” and uses every possible pressure tactic — from contesting by-elections for all the National Assembly seats vacated by the BJP to stoking popular panic — to derail the government.
Soon after the no-confidence vote in April, he began a series of political rallies. At first, it seemed like the start of a campaign. That perception changed when he announced marches on Islamabad like he did in 2014, forcing the government to announce election dates. As in 2014, the futile march ended up saving face — this time with the Supreme Court.
However, unlike in the past, Khan did not enjoy a favorable political environment. Khan’s impatience grew as he realized the odds were against him. He understands that the powerful forces that helped him rise to power may also prevent him from returning to office.
In October, Khan marched again on Islamabad to ensure the neutrality of the establishment, if not their support. However, this time his goal is not to re-election, but to influence the appointment of the new army chief of staff. One of the contenders for the post was the former Inter-Services Intelligence chief, who was dismissed in his first year in office.
The march was halted by an assassination attempt by a fanatic. Since then, the tide has turned.
Khan named a serving general and the prime minister as co-conspirators in his police complaint about the shooting. His social media team has described the military leadership and government as puppets of the United States, making the country a slave to American desires. As the confrontation intensifies, there is no turning back.
This is intentional: Khan prefers revolutionary fervor to mobilize his support base for a political comeback.
Ultimately, the boiling point came on May 9, 2023, when Khan was arrested from an Islamabad court on corruption charges. PTI members gathered in the streets, venting their anger on military installations. In the 24 hours following Khan’s arrest, unprecedented chaos ensued on the streets, which did not end until violent reactions began.
Rebuttals are all-encompassing. It undermines PTI’s leadership, narrative and reputation. Hundreds of party leaders quit the party. Police rounded up thousands of people. As the number of cases against Khan grew, so did the legal noose around him (a court acquitted him three days after his arrest). He was stripped of his platform by the mainstream media, and his support base in the press either fled the country or marginalized himself. For the first time in his political career he looked weak and helpless.
Then, for the first time, Khan reached out to what he had long called “thieves.” But it was too little, too late. On August 5, 2023, a magistrate judge sentenced him to three years in prison for corruption and disqualified him for five years.
It is too early to comment on how history will judge Iman Khan, but many will remember him as one of Pakistan’s popular political icons who missed the opportunity to steer the country into a modern democratic nation-state. They may recall that he missed an opportunity to make his support base democratic and republican — thus transforming himself into a genuine political force to be reckoned with.