Imran Khan's stunning victory will have wider implications for Pakistan and beyond

Although the results will change the government in Punjab, a politically important province of 110 million people, its implications may not be limited to the province, writes Shraddha Nand Bhatnagar for South Asia Monitor

Shraddha Nand Bhatnagar Jul 18, 2022
Imran Khan's stunning victory will have wider implications for Pakistan and beyond(Photo: Dawn)

Imran Khan's sweeping victory in the Punjab by-poll—where his party, PTI, swept 15 out of 20 seats—has not only ensured the end of the provincial government led by the main ruling party, PML-N, in Pakistan’s most populous and politically consequential state but also put the four-month-old coalition government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on notice.

Faced with a series of defections in his party and subsequent loss of power in April through a no-confidence motion in the parliament, the former prime minister attacked all - from the military, his domestic rivals led by what he says corrupt political dynasty families, to even institutions like the judiciary and the elections commission.

With this victory, the tenure of the current coalition government in Punjab led by Chief Minister Hamza Sharif, also the son of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, will end. Khan's party, PTI, will now be in a comfortable position to form the government.

Furthermore, his victory in the stronghold of the ruling Sharif family also provides crucial insight into how Pakistanis see the current political environment in the country. That Khan has emerged as the most popular civilian leader in Pakistan is now almost indisputable.

A genuine popular leader

As Madiha Afzal, an expert on Pakistan and fellow at Brookings Foreign Policy, noted "the Punjab by-elections show that Khan's narrative has resonated with the population, and that the PML-N will need to fundamentally rethink its strategy and update its approach."

Importantly, the fact that Khan managed to win the elections with his anti-establishment narrative is "significant", she pointed out.

Similarly, Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States, compared Khan's arrival as a "genuine" political leader", just like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1970 and Nawaz Sharif in 1993, where both of them managed to win elections after going against the establishment.

Contrary to his earlier victory in the 2018 general elections, where he had received disproportionate support from the country's powerful military-intelligence establishment, this time there is no one but Khan himself to credit for this victory.

As another noted Pakistan commentator, Kurran Hussain, rightly noted, "More than July 25, 2018, it is today that Imran Khan has arrived as a genuinely popular political leader in Pakistan with grassroots support. Hard to see what stands in his way from here on."

In his reaction to the victory, Imran Khan didn't miss the opportunity to term victory a "defeat of the entire state machinery" in the elections held under what he said "the biased" election commission. 

Ramifications of Punjab vote

Although the results will change the government in Punjab, a politically important province of 110 million people, its implications may not be limited to the province. For many, the results have finally put Sharif's government on notice, and it is just a matter of time when Khan again becomes prime minister, obviously through elections.

Sushant Sareen, an expert on Pakistan, compared Imran Khan's victory with the Awami League's victory in the 1970 election in erstwhile Pakistan. Sareen, a senior fellow at Delhi-based think tank, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), also suggested possible implications for the Pakistani military.

"This is huge. If this holds, it means pretty much the end of both federal & Punjab govt, the end of Bajwa, it confirms a division in the military and puts a big question mark over (the) IMF deal”.
The victory also raised question marks over the country's recent outreach to the United States, which had shown a recovery after the damage suffered during Khan's tenure. People in Washington and the Pakistani military should genuinely be concerned about the sustainability of the recent rapprochement if Khan returns to power anytime soon. Bad politics

Before the loss of his government in April, Khan's popularity was on the decline, mainly because of soaring inflation, high employment and a failing economy. His government was under pressure to take a complex but highly unpopular decision to get the IMF deal to save the economy.

Looking back, the decision by Khan's opponents to oust him then appears to have been a misstep, something only helped him politically by providing an escape from the unpopular moves by his successor government to save the economy.

With the change of government in Islamabad, the anger caused by inflation and price rise that would have gone against Khan ultimately came to haunt the ruling coalition itself.

"The PDM, esp the PML-N tonight has to be wondering about the ‘wisdom’ behind its decision to go for the vote of no-confidence this spring," Madiha Afzal said on Twitter.

(The author is Research Associate, Society for Policy Studies. Views are personal)

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