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Far from power for so long, why is Imran’s popularity not decreasing?

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Former Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan has not had a good year at all. This year did not start well. The popular Pakistani politician was ousted in April 2022 after losing a vote of confidence in parliament. Since then, he has been shot while protesting on the streets, faced more than 180 cases including charges of fueling terrorism and ended up in a small 9ft by 9ft cell in Adalia Jail. He has been in jail since August 5 last year after being found guilty in a case of selling state gifts.

Another national election is imminent in Pakistan. The election is scheduled to be held on February 8. But political analysts think that 71-year-old Imran will not be allowed to participate in this election. Surprisingly, the truth is, despite being hidden from the public eye for so long, seemingly away from politics and outside the power structure, his popularity has not declined so much.

According to analysts, Pakistan’s military players (who control politics and state power) have resorted to all sorts of tactics to keep Imran and his party Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) away from the elections. These tactics include imprisoning Imran, arresting thousands of PTI leaders, forcing a dozen party leaders to resign through pressure, banning Imran Khan’s name from mainstream media, redrawing constituency boundaries, taking away Imran Khan’s party symbol (cricket bat). And many more including cancellation of Imran’s nomination papers.

Why Imran’s popularity is not collapsing despite all this is now a big question mark. To find the answer to that question, we have to look at what is happening in Pakistan ahead of the election and in what process it is happening. Is the election going to be held in accordance with all democratic processes in the country that claims to be a democratic country? The comments of Samina Yasmin, director of the Center for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia, can be taken into account. He commented, ‘An election is going to be held, but I have serious doubts whether true democratic principles are being followed or not. Meanwhile, Imran Khan’s party symbol cricket bat has also been taken away.

PTI’s party symbol cricket bat was banned on Monday. There is no doubt that this will have an impact on the country’s 40 percent illiterate voters. Because these voters vote by seeing the symbol. Apart from this, Imran’s party PTI has also been banned. So how will PTI candidates participate in the elections? Naturally, they now have to stand as independent candidates. And if so, they will be lucky to have such unconventional symbols as ‘roller coaster’, ‘goat’.

Needless to say, when a political party is banned and party symbols are taken away from its workers, the party ceases to exist. PTI spokesperson and Imran Khan’s former special assistant Rauf Hasan told the influential US magazine Time, ‘Party symbols are an integral part of fair elections during elections. If a party’s symbol is taken away, the party is left without a clue.’

Meanwhile, it has become difficult for PTI leaders to become independent candidates. In some places, it was also seen that the aides of the government security personnel snatched the nomination papers from the hands of their workers.

To be a candidate in the election, the candidate needs a proposer and a supporter. But in Pakistan in the last few days, it has been seen that some candidates who wanted to be independent candidates from PTI have been taken away. Rauf Hasan said, ‘There is no more disgraceful incident than this. Already 90 percent of PTI’s nomination papers have been cancelled. The pre-election rigging has started before the elections.’

It is noteworthy that Nawaz Sharif does not have to face the obstacles that Imran Khan is facing. Nawaz Sharif is a three-time former Prime Minister of Pakistan. He was ousted in 2017 on corruption charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He later moved to London in voluntary exile in 2018. He recently returned to Pakistan from there and announced that he will contest the upcoming elections. The court also acquitted him from almost all the cases. Even the ban on him saying ‘can’t do politics for life’ has been lifted. As a result, there is no obstacle for him to stand in the election.

74-year-old Nawaz is now campaigning in Sambar. He is seeking votes from the voters as he wants to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan for the fourth time.

Big election rally is going to start from next week. It is not unusual to see clashes between Imran’s supporters and Nawaz’s supporters on the streets. Imran Khan’s sister Alema has also hinted. He said, ‘The election rally will start soon. Then it may be difficult to stop the gang of supporters in the streets.’

It is no longer a secret that Pakistan’s military elites are giving Nawaz unwavering support. But the huge popularity of Imran Khan has left a fold of worry on their foreheads. Now surely they have to resort to other tactics.

A Gallup poll last December showed that Imran’s popularity is 57 percent despite being in prison. On the other hand, Nawaz Sharif’s popularity is 52 percent. Confident PTI leaders say that if they are allowed to participate in the elections and if the elections are fair, they will definitely win.

Researcher Samina Yasmin said, ‘Marginal and downtrodden people like Imran Khan terribly. If Imran asks them to vote for a piece of furniture, they will do it.’

Imran Khan has developed ties with China and Russia during his tenure and has done himself a disservice by portraying himself as anti-American. Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, said, ‘From Washington’s point of view, anyone is a better option than Imran Khan. So he has been ousted.’

In contrast, Nawaz Sharif is pro-business and pro-American. On the face of it, he seems to be America’s better option now. America’s demand in Pakistan is to control terrorism and maintain stable relations with neighboring India. Nawaz Sharif’s past record in both these areas is quite good.

But it is a matter of concern that Nawaz’s relationship with the military cadres who are now supporting Nawaz was not good at all in the past. It was this military skill that ousted Nawaz three times. Kugelman said, ‘Past history shows that Nawaz’s relationship with the military is quite bitter. If he becomes the next prime minister of Pakistan, military-civilian relations will undoubtedly worsen.’

Another concern is that no prime minister in Pakistan has been able to leave power after completing their term. So, even if Nawaz wins the upcoming elections and becomes the prime minister again, there are doubts whether he will be able to complete his term or not.

And by reading these histories, probably Imran Khan is quite safe in prison. His sister Alema said, ‘He is very cold in prison. Reading two or three books every day and doing spiritual practices. He is doing well physically and mentally.’

Imran knows very well that whatever the outcome of the February elections, he is an inescapable reality of these elections and of Pakistani politics. This fact cannot be ignored. No matter how much he is kept out of politics, he will never be out of discussion. His huge and amazing popularity will keep him alive in the discussion arena. Keeping him out of elections, keeping him in jail—all these will become his tools of struggle.

Author: Associate Editor, Digital Department, Independent Television


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