Within days of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) party forming the government in Islamabad following the 2013 general elections, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) announced it would not accept the results of the “rigged” polls. In the nearly four years since, the party has issued a string of ultimatums—from threatening to expose the government’s perfidy to shutting it down outright—to no avail. With the party gearing up for its latest salvo against the ruling party and its alleged corruption on Nov. 2, supporters and detractors are forced to ask: what, apart from politics of agitation, makes the party a viable alternative to the current setup?
Protests and sit-ins against the ruling regime are nothing new in Pakistan. From the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to the PMLN to the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country has a tradition of opposition parties relying on politics of agitation to express their viewpoints. What sets the PTI apart is its refusal to budge from a single-point objective: the removal of the democratically elected prime minister by any means necessary.
From the start, the PTI has attracted supporters who believe Khan is fighting for their rights and for the betterment of Pakistan. But with each passing year—and subsequent goalpost shift—confidence in the cricketer-turned-politician’s ability to enact real change has diminished. Many supporters now openly question what the party has accomplished in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa—where it is in power—to suggest it can bring about a ‘Naya Pakistan.’
The divide has become increasingly prominent in the lead-up to Nov. 2, with observers decrying the message Khan is conveying to the world at a time when Pakistan is facing isolation from neighboring states such as India and Afghanistan. There is also concern about the economic impact of a prolonged shutdown of the federal capital.
“The PTI’s Islamabad protest cannot succeed if they do not get the people on their side,” predicts veteran journalist Mujeebur Rehman Shami. “If the people decide, of their own accord, to refuse to work, then the PTI has a chance. But if they try to prevent government employees from working forcibly, they will be in violation of law. No state in the world would allow a political party to spread chaos on threat of violence,” he added.
A leaked memorandum from the PTI, seen by Newsweek, appears to suggest the party is not only ready for violence, but anticipates it. Dated Oct. 30, the document urges protesters to arrive in large groups—with both men and women—to make it “hard” for police to “attack families.” In addition, it urges supporters to protest outside any police station believed to be detaining PTI activists and advises them to carry licensed weapons—but not show them off. This document, whose veracity could not be confirmed, lends credence to government fears that the party is advocating unrest. The PTI had gained much sympathy due to the PMLN’s heavy-handed response to the protest—from arresting hundreds of workers to blocking major arteries into and out of Islamabad—but if it resorts to arming its workers and encouraging unrest, it stands to lose all that support.
The government’s response to the protest movement has been equally tone-deaf. Instead of allowing the dharna to proceed, they adopted heavy-handed tactics to prevent PTI supporters from reaching Islamabad. Over 1,000 party workers were taken into custody and several injured. Barriers were erected between Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, effectively cutting off the northern areas from the rest of the country. Police fired tear-gas on protesters marching toward Islamabad and a heavy contingent of security personnel deployed outside Khan’s Bani Gala residence effectively placed him under house arrest. The government claims it is willing to allow a peaceful protest, but will not tolerate Khan’s calls for a “lock down” of the federal capital. That is fair, but abusing Khan’s supporters for taking to the streets on their leader’s call is no solution. Perhaps if the government had been willing to negotiate with the PTI earlier, it could have found a way to resolve the ongoing crisis. But with both sides unwilling to cooperate, it is unlikely the Nov. 2 protest can be anything other than yet another showdown.
“We’re used to participating in sit-ins and dharnas now,” says a district-level official of the PTI in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa on condition of anonymity. He told Newsweek that it would have been preferable for the PTI to focus on addressing the problems of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa residents and use that success to pressure the government into accepting its demands. However, he added, this did not diminish the need for a movement to demand P.M. Sharif answer for his alleged corruption.
Not that Khan’s own party is as clean as he is fond of claiming. The PTI chief has already admitted—after much media scrutiny—that he had used an offshore company to evade British taxes when he owned an apartment in London. “I was already paying 35 percent tax on my income so to evade further taxes I bought the flat through an offshore firm, which was my right as I was not a British citizen,” Khan told reporters in London. Meanwhile, the Panama Papers have also linked senior PTI leaders such as Aleem Khan and Jehangir Tareen to offshore bank accounts.
Analyst Tariq Afaq told Newsweek Khan should have worked to make Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa a model of good governance and used that example to show the rest of the country what could be done to bring about a Naya Pakistan. Instead, he says, the PTI-led government in the province has suffered from the same scandals and allegations of corruption that plague every other provincial setup.
Chief Minister Pervez Khattak’s alleged corruption has been a persistent blot on the PTI-led government, despite multiple denials from Khattak. This includes claims that he was involved in accepting bribes against recruitment in the police department and for awarding infrastructure development projects to substandard contractors. His behavior while in office also stands in marked contrast to that of Punjab Chief Minister (and PMLN leader) Shehbaz Sharif, who regularly visits ongoing projects to ensure they are being implemented in a timely and efficient manner. “Whenever he [Khattak] has been questioned about checking on ongoing [development] works, he says it is the responsibility of the officials concerned and he is not required to examine them,” says Afaq.
Khattak’s family was also implicated in attacking grid stations of the Peshawar Electric Supply Company after it registered cases against 22 people for electricity theft. Instead of taking action against the accused, says Afaq, Khattak allegedly supported them. “Why did Imran Khan not demand his appointed chief minister respond to such allegations and dispel the impression he was involved in corruption?” questions Afaq.
Similarly, there are rumors that Khan hid the alleged corruption of several PTI ministers in his cabinet, claiming he had removed them due to lack of performance. A PTI parliamentarian, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed this set a bad precedent. “We should have named and shamed them in the interest of transparency,” she told Newsweek. “One of the accused has several cases registered against him with the police, but he faces no action because he is close to Khattak,” she alleges. Khattak maintains his innocence in all these matters.
In contrast, say opposition lawmakers in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Khan did not hesitate to publicly announce that lawmakers of the Qaumi Watan Party were being removed from the cabinet for alleged dishonesty. He should adopt a similarly principled stance for his own lawmakers, they argue.
Several of the most heralded initiatives undertaken by the PTI in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa also look better on paper than in practice, say observers. One such initiative was the ‘One Billion Tree Campaign.’ Ecologists have denounced the campaign, claiming authorities have chosen the wrong plants for the climate. They have expressed particular concern about planting dodonaea in Peshawar, arguing that it is unsuitable for the region and tantamount to “wasting” the public’s money.
However, the PTI maintains the funding allocated for the initiative will ensure the transplanted species thrive. “We have allocated $150 million for this project and are committed to reversing deforestation and educating people to stop regarding trees as ‘revenue’, but rather as ‘natural capital’,” says Malik Amin, Khan’s environment adviser.
Throughout the PTI’s tenure in Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa, it has claimed to improve accountability to ensure the government acts in the best interests of the people. In reality, however, the Ehtesab Commission tasked with ensuring corruption-free governance was neutered before it even had a chance to enact any significant change. According to Lt. Gen (retd.) Hamid Khan, who was appointed the director general of the commission, the provincial government balked when senior government officials and politicians—including those belonging to the PTI—came under scrutiny. In a resignation letter, the ex-military official said he could no longer serve as head of the Ehtesab Commission because its powers had been curtailed to the point where it was now a toothless body. He specifically pointed to the provincial government’s decision to not make the anti-corruption department subservient to the commission and the federal government’s continued interference through the National Accountability Bureau.
Amir Muqam, adviser to the prime minister on federal departments in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, claims the PTI has damaged its chances of emerging the majority party in the province in 2018. “I used to be very worried that the PMLN had no chance in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa after the 2013 general elections, but the PTI’s poor performance has exposed them,” he told Newsweek. “The people of this province have brains and they have realized they voted for the wrong person. Imran Khan is not concerned about positive change in this province; he merely wants to rule Punjab. They see this now.”
There are also murmurs within the party that Khan’s ‘dictatorship’ is hurting its efforts to rid Pakistan of corruption. The party decided to suspend intra-party elections earlier this year, leaving Khan the de facto leader in perpetuity. This stands in marked contrast to rival PMLN—often slammed by Khan as a ‘monarchy’—which recently concluded its own intra-party elections, with Sharif re-emerging the uncontested leader. “We have some people, such as Ali Mohammad Khan, Shireen Mazari, and Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who still convey reservations to Khan if they disagree with him,” says another PTI leader speaking on condition of anonymity. “But they are seldom heard.” According to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa based activist, Ali Mohammad Khan was recently told to leave the party and join the PMLN when he argued against the dharna in Islamabad, exposing Khan’s refusal to brook dissent.
Veteran journalist Mohammad Riaz blames the PTI’s refusal to accept any criticism as a key sticking point for its detractors. “If a law is exercised against the PTI, they claims it is biased, but have no compunctions using the same law to target their political opponents,” he says. The party’s sidelining of Justice (retd.) Wajihuddin Ahmed—who resigned from the PTI in 2015—is a notable example. The former justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court had questioned irregularities in the 2013 intra-party elections and alleged Pervez Khattak and Jehangir Tareen were involved in pre-poll rigging. His subsequent media interactions prompted Imran Khan to suspend his basic party membership, encouraging a culture of secrecy that flies in the face of the party’s stated intent to ensure transparency in all its interactions with the public.
A similar veil of secrecy has been encouraged, ironically, with the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information (RTI) and Right to Public Service (RTS) laws. In 2009, after the controversial Nizam-e-Adl Regulation established shariah law in the region, the World Bank found that a lack of communication between the state and its citizens, coupled with non-provision of basic services, had encouraged residents to take up arms against the state and prefer militant rule. The global body recommended the Awami National Party-led government at the time implement right to information laws to help appease the public’s misgivings.
In 2013, after the PTI-led government came into power, the World Bank urged it to legislate the RTI and RTS bills and establish bodies to implement them. With funding from the global body, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government established the RTI Commission in 2013 and the RTS Commission in 2014. Unfortunately, the worthwhile initiative has failed to make much headway as the PTI opted to staff it with internees instead of experienced officials. While the stated intent of fresh hires untainted by corruption is laudable, expecting senior police and district administration officials to accept the orders of people several years their junior—in terms of experience as well as age—was always a fool’s gambit. Hiring the interns is not a bad idea; in fact, it gives employment to the next generation. However, the government should have appointed a senior official or politician to implement the recommendations forwarded by its youthful employees or at the least outlined consequences for bureaucrats who failed to accept their demands.
Despite the PTI’s failings in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, most observers support its anti-corruption movement and hope its dharna will have a positive effect and force the sitting PMLN government to take action. But even among its supporters, the PTI’s oft-repeated claim of institutional bias rings hollow.
Despite the PTI claiming the government is actively trying to hamper its efforts, the Election Commission of Pakistan and the Supreme Court have both taken action on petitions against P.M. Nawaz Sharif and various PMLN leaders.
In September, the ECP—on a petition filed by the PTI and the PPP—started hearing arguments for the disqualification of Sharif over his family’s offshore accounts, as revealed by the Panama Papers. Khan’s lawyer alleged Sharif had hidden his daughter Maryam Nawaz’s ownership of an offshore bank account while listing her as a dependent. The hearings are still ongoing.
Similarly, the Supreme Court on Nov. 1 asked the PMLN and the PTI to submit Terms of Reference on the formation of a judicial commission to probe the Panama Papers leaks. Sharif, said his lawyer, had agreed to be investigated by a judicial commission—a key demand of Khan’s. This, once again, proves that Pakistan’s institutions are taking allegations against the prime minister seriously and are willing to cater to the PTI’s concerns. By continuing its protest, the PTI seeks to undermine its own case before the apex court. Instead of jumping the gun, the party should have allowed the case to proceed and acted if the verdict appeared to have been biased or otherwise tampered with. Instead, it decided on a parallel course of appearing in court as well as staging its dharna, which, say analysts, sends a message of intimidation to the judiciary—a dangerous precedent in a country where judicial workers often face threats to their lives just for doing their jobs.
The PTI cannot expect Pakistan’s judiciary to act overnight to alleviate their concerns. Pakistan’s justice system is notoriously slow, as Khan himself is aware based on his claim to “fix” it during the 2013 general elections campaign. But if Khan and his supporters want to work within the ambit of law, they have to be willing to follow the proper procedure to ensure their demands are met. Attempting to enforce a favorable and speedy verdict without due process is not only illegal, it also violates Pakistan’s Constitution—the one thing Khan accuses Sharif of nearly every day.
The PTI claims it is the best alternative to the poor governance espoused by the PPP, PMLN and various other political parties. It’s time it proved it.