By Sushant Sareen
In a widely anticipated ruling, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has disqualified former Prime Minister Imran Khan from being a member of Parliament or of a Provincial Assembly and ordered legal proceedings against him for indulging in corrupt practices. The agony of Imran’s supporters seeing their icon being delivered a technical knock-out is matched only by the irony of him being disqualified on more or less the same grounds as his bête noire, Nawaz Sharif. The latter was shown the red card on the very flimsy grounds of not declaring a salary that he never received, while Imran has been shown the door after irrefutable evidence of misdeclaration of his assets and liabilities.
Imran’s disqualification came in a reference filed against him with the ECP in what is commonly known as the Toshakhana case. The ECP has found him guilty of “making false declaration and incorrect statement before the Commission”. According to the ECP, he has “deliberately concealed the material facts by not disclosing the details of gifts in statement of his assets and liabilities… nor accounting for the sale proceeds” in relation to gifts he received as Prime Minister and acquired for his personal use, and later sold for profit. The period of his disqualification is still unknown. Article 63(1)(P) of the constitution under which Imran Khan has been disqualified only says disqualified “for the time being” under whatever law is in force. The ECP ruling has directed legal proceedings in a court of law and follow-up action under section 190(2) of the Election Act 2017.
The length of disqualification will finally be decided after the case is prosecuted in the sessions court and later in the superior judiciary. If found guilty, Imran can not only be imprisoned for up to three years, but can also face disqualification for life because he will no longer be Sadiq and Ameen (truthful and honest). Imran does have the option of appealing the ECP ruling in the High Court, which could grant a stay. Given the track record of superior courts bending over backwards to give relief to Imran in even fairly cut-and-dried cases—for example, in the case of threatening a judge—chances are that the judges will cut him some slack in the Toshakhana case and stay the ECP ruling. But the trials will continue in the courts and go through the judicial mill, keeping the sword hanging over Imran’s head. Meanwhile, other even more damaging cases—including the foreign funding case in which the ECP has already found Imran’s Tehrik-e-Insaf party guilty of receiving prohibited funding and diverting, even misusing, these funds—are being litigated in the courts and could deal a body blow to not only Imran but also the erstwhile ruling party.
Politically, as far as perception and narrative goes, Imran’s detractors will see the ECP verdict as seriously denting his entire campaign of presenting himself as lily white and pure, while painting his political opponents as venal and corrupt; Imran’s cult will, however, ignore the damning documentary evidence that led to his disqualification. They will continue to see him as a martyr who was unfairly done down by the corrupt system against which he was struggling. In other words, the popular support Imran enjoys will be impacted only on the margins, if at all. The only problem is that popularity has, however, never come in the way of the putting an end to, or even derailing, the career of a politician in Pakistan.
Where the ECP ruling really impacts Imran Khan is in the domain of power politics. The menu of options before Imran is narrowing. He can choose to remain politically alive to fight and even win another day; or he can make a desperate lunge to grab power by mounting pressure on the streets to force an early election, which he is sure he will sweep. If he chooses the first option, then he will be able to continue doing his politics even as he goes through the motions of legal processes to become eligible to hold office again. But this option entails a cooling off period i.e. he will have to wait for his turn to come back into power. There is hardly any chance that the military establishment will allow him back in the Prime Minister’s office even after the next elections, whenever they are held.
For now, Imran is damaged goods. He has riled up the military establishment by trying to divide them, accusing them of being disloyal and even traitorous, of conspiring against his government. His feckless governance record makes him a complete no-no more so at a time when Pakistan is facing an existential crisis. Terrorism is once again rearing its head. The economy is on the verge of a total meltdown and cannot survive without financial and diplomatic assistance from countries like the United States, China, the Arab states—all of whom aren’t exactly wanting to see Imran back on the saddle. Politically, Pakistan needs healing from the extremely polarised environment that Imran’s toxic politics has engendered. And, of course, there is the pressing need to start the process of normalising relations with India, which will not be possible if Imran returns to power. For reasons of state survival, Imran will have to stay out in the cold for some time. If he is ready to do this, he will be given some space.
But Imran being Imran could decide to force his way back into power. That he enjoys considerable public support is unquestionable. This has been proven by the massive victories he has registered in the bye-elections in July and repeated last week when he won six of the seven seats he contested. Imran could convince himself that he has the power to go against the combined forces of the other political parties and the military establishment and come out on top. Since his ouster in April, he has confronted the military like no one before him. But the Army has found itself nonplussed by his onslaught, and has not been able to touch him or shut him down. There are murmurs of divisions within the Army rank and file. Imran has also claimed that while the generals are against him, their families support him. The judiciary too appears biased in his favour. His party has governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab as also in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan-occupied Gilgit Baltistan. To top it all off, he has an almost fanatical, zombie type support base that will be ready to come out on the streets for him.
Imran could decide he will go all in and leverage all his support to bring a ‘Long March’ to Islamabad and create a situation forcing the state and government to agree to an early election. If he does choose this path, the state of Pakistan will have three options: It can succumb to Imran’s pressure tactics and then risk state failure; it can use force to crush the Long March and then use the might of the state to not just throw Imran in prison but also dismantle his party; and, if all else fails, there is always the political nuclear option—a military takeover followed by a technocratic government to fix Pakistan. The last option has been tried four times in the past but, far from fixing things, it has only worsened them. But, perhaps, this might be the only option left to save the state from a total collapse given that the political instability is worsening the economic crisis and Pakistan is just weeks away from becoming a Sri Lanka on steroids.