akistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and its supremo, Imran Khan, have done remarkably well in terms of adopting successful strategies to maintain their popularity as the political temperature rises. However, the challenges that lie ahead may be of a different nature. That is why he and his advisers are trying to devise new strategies. A part of the strategy is to keep the pot boiling through public rallies and propaganda.
Khan and the PTI face several challenges currently. These include court cases, a ban on live telecast of his speeches and the possibility of his arrest and detention. The big advantage Khan enjoys currently is his popularity.
Another advantage the PTI has is the support of the provincial governments in the Punjab, represented in the National Assembly by 141 members elected against general constituencies, and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), where Imran Khan can move about freely without a fear of being arrested. It also enables the PTI to threaten the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led federal government in Islamabad with a pincer movement. The PTI has strong roots in the KP and is trying now to increase its strength in the Punjab, especially in the areas known so far as the PML-N strongholds.
The results of the by-election to 20 seats of the Punjab Assembly that became vacant after 20 PTI dissidents were de-seated for voting for Hamza Shahbaz have been a stunner, exceeding the expectations of even most PTI leaders. This has given Khan and his advisors the idea that they can sweep a majority of seats from the Punjab in the next general elections. Khan has decided therefore to focus on the Punjab. According to PTI insiders, the decision to shift the August 13 rally to Lahore was in keeping with the new strategy to mobilise the masses in the Punjab.
Imran Khan, who is demanding immediate elections to the National Assembly, is, however, satisfied with the status of the provincial assemblies. He apparently believes that the PTI governments in the KP and the Punjab and his personal popularity might win him a two-thirds majority in the general elections if the National Assembly is dissolved before completing its tenure. In that scenario, the elections might be held for the National Assembly only. The provincial assemblies might than remain intact and complete their tenures. After winning a clear majority of seats to form the federal government, it will become easier for Khan to win majorities in the provinces including Sindh and Balochistan where Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) parties currently have governments.
The PDM leadership is aware of Khan’s strategy. It has decided that the federal government should complete its tenure. Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N supremo, had earlier asked his PDM colleagues to consider fresh elections. However, their line of reasoning goes that given the performance of the federal government so far and the popularity of Khan, calling early elections will be a grave mistake.
After National Assembly Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf approved the resignations of 11 PTI members and the Election Commission of Pakistan announced by-elections against nine general seats, the PTI sprung a surprise by making Khan the sole candidate for these constituencies. There are several advantages to the move. First, many in the PTI believe that Khan will win all nine constituencies and that this will be a huge embarrassment for the PDM, especially the PML-N, the PPP and the JUI-F. Second, if Khan loses some of the constituencies, the PTI will have the opportunity to allege rigging accuse the ECP of partiality. Third, having won the by-election, nothing stops Khan from resigning and forcing yet another round of by-elections. This will be seen as a great victory for the PTI. Fourth, it will give Khan the opportunity to mobilise the voters in his favour through rallies in nine – possibly more - districts of the four provinces.
Imran Khan, who is demanding immediate elections to the National Assembly, is, however, satisfied with the status of the provincial assemblies. He apparently believes that the PTI governments in the KP and the Punjab and his own popularity might get him a two-thirds majority in the next general elections if the National Assembly is dissolved before completing its tenure.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has imposed a ban on live transmission of Khan’s speeches. The PTI has responded by using the large number of its social media activists and using YouTube and Twitter space more effectively. During the last week the PTI activists massively increased their activity on other social media networks as well - including Facebook and Instagram. Facebook Live has proved a particularly effective tool in this regard.
However, the strategy has its drawbacks as well. The propaganda against the federal government and state institutions rose to such a feverish pitch as a result that a treason case was registered against Khan’s close aide Shahbaz Gill and he was arrested. Khan and most of his aides responded initially with a meaningless silence. However, a couple of days later, Khan claimed that Gill had been tortured. The medical report submitted to the court did not support the allegations. The PTI has been unable so far to say where he was tortured and who did it. Khan has only said that the Islamabad Police were not involved in the torture.
While being shifted to the Pakistan Institute of Media Sciences (PIMS), Gill complained of difficulty breathing. However, some of the photos and video footage leaked from the hospital showed him to be well, enjoying food and arguing with doctors and policemen. The PTI said the photos had been morphed. The next day, Gill was produced before a court. It was later claimed that some police officials had told him he was being grated a bail and that this made him so excited that he forgot about the wheelchair and the mask. The judge rejected the public prosecutor’s request for a seven-day physical remand and sent him to Adiala Jail on judicial remand. If anything, the episode highlighted the effectiveness of the PTI media strategy.
The biggest challenge to Khan now is the court cases against him. 19 cases have been registered against the former PM so far. He has been granted bails in the anti-terrorism case and in the case alleging violation of the Section 144. However, the contempt of court case in the Islamabad High Court may be more problematic. Last week, the IHC had issued a show-cause notice to him and summoned him for an August 31 hearing. The court had taken suo motu notice of reports that during a speech in the rally organised to show solidarity with Gill he had threatened an additional sessions judge for granting the police request for physical remand of Gill and told her be ready for the consequences.
The reported remarks of Justice Mohsin Kayani indicate that the court is taking Khan’s words seriously. “A female judge has been threatened. How can one work in such an environment? Do you want a common man to initiate his own justice?” the judge asked.
Khan personally appeared before two courts in Islamabad on Thursday to seek bail. He has apparently sensed the gravity of the situation. He is expected to submit an unconditional apology to the IHC. It will still be the prerogative of the court to accept or reject it. If he is convicted in the contempt of the court case, he may be disqualified for public office for up to five years. This can be a severe blow to his political career, his party, his narrative and his popularity. The PTI might respond by organising street protests. If the state then acts to establish its writ, clashes might occur between the protesters and the law enforcement.
Khan also risks disqualification in the foreign funding, Tosha Khana and contempt of ECP cases. That is apparently the reason he is escalating the political rhetoric to mount pressure on the national institutions on the one hand, and try to win back the support of ‘neutrals’ on the other.
The pressures are such that he forgot even to celebrate the NA-245 by-election victory.
The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. He tweets at BukhariMubasher