What’s Next for Imran Khan’s Party?

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s political party faces elections with its leader in jail, interreligious violence flares in India, and Bangladesh replaces a controversial cyber law—although the new act may be similar.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was jailed for three years last Saturday after a conviction on charges related to selling state gifts. Khan and his supporters insist he is the victim of a witch hunt. The fall from grace for the cricket hero-turned-populist politician mirrors that of many other Pakistani leaders who quarreled with the country’s powerful military.

Some Khan supporters hoped he would somehow buck the trend, pointing to the support he retained in the military’s lower and middle ranks and to the Supreme Court’s decision to order his release after a brief detention in May. But this wasn’t Khan’s showdown to win: In Pakistan, the generals always prevail in civil-military tiffs, no matter how popular or resilient a leader may be.

It’s tempting to consign Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to irrelevance. The party revolves around its imprisoned leader; most of its top leaders are also behind bars or—under pressure from the military—have quit PTI or left politics altogether. Thousands of party supporters have been arrested since May. Yet PTI still has a political pulse and, in a country known for political comebacks, Khan may not be done either.

PTI has public support, winning by-elections across Pakistan since Khan’s ouster in a no-confidence vote in April 2022, including one in the city of Peshawar the day after Khan’s arrest this week. It also benefits from anti-incumbency sentiment. The ruling coalition that took over from Khan angered the public by mishandling Pakistan’s economic crisis, nearly leading to a default. Recent polling shows most Pakistanis blame the government for economic stress.

On Wednesday, the government handed power to a caretaker administration that will prepare the country for national elections. The elections are scheduled for November, but they may be delayed for a few months due to adjustments following census results—a change that could be motivated by an unpopular government that is in no hurry to hold polls. The delay will anger PTI supporters, but it may also give the party’s leadership time to regroup.

This isn’t to suggest PTI will sweep the elections—but if the party capitalizes on its base’s anger about Khan’s imprisonment and wider dissatisfaction with the government’s performance, it can still make electoral gains. Of course, that will be hard to do if the political establishment’s crackdowns against PTI continue and if steps are taken to rig the election against the party.

PTI could strengthen its electoral prospects if its remaining leadership patches up ties with the military, as Khan has been unable or unwilling to do. This is possible; while in power from 2018 to 2022, PTI worked closely and cordially with the armed forces until Khan’s own relationship with the generals soured. The party leadership faces a conundrum: how to bury the hatchet with the military without alienating its base.

As for Khan, he may be out of the picture for now, but is not necessarily gone for good. If his conviction is upheld, he will be ineligible to contest the next election. But because of a recently amended law that limits disqualifications to five years, he would only have to skip one vote. Khan won’t lapse into irrelevance in jail. Instead, his sentence could bolster the narrative that has helped fuel his popularity: that Pakistan’s corrupt political class has it in for him.

Five years is a long time in Pakistani politics. Circumstances could change, creating new opportunities for Khan. The country’s history is full of leaders who made comebacks after serving jail sentences—including Shehbaz Sharif, who just concluded his term as prime minister this week. Of course, this isn’t always the case. Former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, another charismatic populist, was executed after being imprisoned on charges of plotting to kill an opponent.

Still, in a country where many politicians seem to have nine lives, it would be premature to write Khan’s political obituary.

Communal violence flares in India. On Monday, Hindus and Muslims clashed in the city of Gurugram in the state of Haryana after a Muslim tomb was set on fire. The incident followed violence in the state last week following a Hindu extremist procession. The Hindu groups say Muslims threw stones and torched cars, while Muslims counter the violence was triggered by an incendiary video released by a Hindu vigilante. In the aftermath, authorities bulldozed homes and shops in Muslim-majority areas.

Also last week, a police officer opened fire on a Mumbai-bound train in the state of Maharashtra, killing four people. Railway officials say the officer was suffering from mental health issues, while opposition politicians and Muslim leaders say the incident was an anti-Muslim hate crime; three of those killed were Muslim. A video posted after the attack showed the officer mentioning Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and hardline ally and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

The national government, including Modi, has remained silent about the recent violence, as is often the case. Then again, as India prepares to host a G-20 leaders’ meeting in New Delhi next month—not far from Gurugram—it could be hard to ignore.

Bangladesh replaces repressive cyber law. Bangladesh’s cabinet has rebranded a draconian security law, including by changing its name to the Cyber Security Act, the minister for law, justice, and parliamentary affairs, Anisul Huq, announced on Monday. In Bangladesh—as in India and Pakistan—officials had exploited the law, intended to promote internet security, to crack down on dissent. The government in Dhaka, the capital, seemed to introduce the changes as a response to growing outcry.

According to Huq, those charged with defamation will face lesser punishments—fines, not jail time—under the new law. However, the draft of the Cyber Security Act approved by the cabinet is not yet public, raising fears that it could be similar to its previous form. Iftekhar Zaman, the executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh, warned that Huq has indicated that “many sections” of the original law will remain.

Pakistan suspends Iran pipeline project. On Monday, Pakistan’s minister of state for petroleum, Musadik Malik, announced that the country had decided to suspend a natural gas pipeline project with Iran due to the threat of U.S. sanctions. The ambitious project offers tantalizing energy security benefits for Islamabad, but financing constraints have long prevented its completion.

The pipeline suspension underscores Pakistan’s tricky position ever since Iran and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement this year to reduce tensions. Although the deal frees up more space for Pakistan—a longstanding Saudi partner—to engage commercially with Iran, the U.S. sanctions regime remains a constant. That limits the benefits of Riyadh-Tehran rapprochement for Islamabad.

Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan all have elections scheduled in the next year, but the next country in South Asia to go to the polls is the Maldives. The island country will hold an election on Sept. 9, and it is experiencing a similar storyline as other countries in the region: opposition leaders facing corruption charges that their supporters say are politically motivated.

Last December, former Maldives President (and current opposition leader) Abdulla Yameen was sentenced to 11 years in prison on corruption and money-laundering charges. Before his sentencing, Yameen filed election nomination papers, but the country’s election commission ruled that the conviction made him ineligible to run. On Sunday, following a plea from Yameen, the Maldives Supreme Court upheld the election commission’s decision and barred Yameen from participating in the election.

The ruling is a victory for the Maldives government, but it may also be well received in New Delhi. Last year, Yameen launched a campaign platform taking a tough line on India, including canceling defense deals. The Maldives has become a battleground for India-China competition, and a return to power by Yameen may have been a setback for India’s geopolitical interests in the region.

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