All eyes in Pakistan are fixated on Gohar Ali, whose claim to fame is his loyalty towards the jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Ali is the man who will shepherd the newly elected Khan supporters who have won the largest number of parliamentary seats in the February 8 election.
"Who will be the next prime minister, Imran Ahmad Khan Niazi saheb will decide. He is the one, always, and he is the leader whether he is in jail or outside," Ali told Pakistani journalists on Saturday after claiming that Khan loyalists would get 170 seats to claim a majority in the National Assembly, the parliament. They are members of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). But they were forced to fight as independents because the Election Commission had snatched away the party’s election symbol, the cricket bat.
The big question is whether the military will continue to suppress the democratic process and stop PTI members from forming the government even if it garners a complete majority in parliament. The army is equally concerned about its image, and would not risk a possible uprising by blocking the PTI any further. Rejecting the claim of the PTI-linked independents could result in a dangerous law and order situation.
The army has a difficult choice to make. It can continue to be guided by its hatred for Imran Khan and make sure that his supporters do not come to power. Alternatively, it may swallow its pride to avoid mass protests like the one seen on May 9, 2023, when thousands of demonstrators marched into army cantonments and even the homes of top military officials. This was the biggest loss of image that the military had suffered since the creation of Pakistan.
IMRAN KHAN LOYALISTS
If the military decides to allow Khan loyalists, it will have to sacrifice its original plan to make Nawaz Sharif the next prime minister. What is more, the army will be forced to find legal ways to lessen the punishment burden in Khan who has been sentenced to 14 years of prison in three different cases of corruption. This is a complex judicial affair and the courts need to be on board to make a success of such a plan.
Khan loyalists have surprised the world by showing what a determined electorate can do in the face of resistance and repression by the mighty military. Fighting as independents, Khan loyalists have already won 95 of the declared seats.
They are ahead of the 69 seats won by rival leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by Bilawal Bhutto, has emerged as the third largest group winning 51 of the declared seats.
Former prime minister and PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif has invited both elected parties and independents to form a “unity government” with himself as prime minister at a time when Pakistan is struck in economic chaos. The goal is “to steer the country out of crisis,” he said. He is in talks with the PPP offering lucrative posts including the position of Pakistan’s president to its leader and former prime minister, Asif Ali Zardari.
On his part, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has thrown in hat in the ring hoping to attract sufficient independents to form a government on his own. He had previously also ruled out the formation of a coalition government with the PML-N.
INDEPENDENTS ARE THE KING
Independents are in demand because both PML-N and the PPP hope they will cut off loyalties to Imran Khan and join their bandwagon. Both parties are offering plum posts and ministerial positions to buy their loyalty. Offers include chairmanships of various standing committees and appointments as parliamentary secretaries which are offices that come with several perks and privileges besides opening up possibilities for corruption.
The biggest surprise came from the Punjab province, which is the stronghold of the PML. However, Khan’s PTI members have captured nearly half of the seats in Punjab leaving PML-N to hog the rest. PPP has won three quarters of the seats in the Sindh province.
THE US INTEREST
An interesting side story is the keen interest being shown by the US in the Pakistan elections. The US government has condemned the restrictions imposed on the electoral process and the instances of violence that took place in different parts of the country.
“We join credible international and local election observers in their assessment that these elections included undue restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. We condemn electoral violence, restrictions on the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including attacks on media workers, and restrictions on access to the Internet and telecommunication services, and are concerned about allegations of interference in the electoral process. Claims of interference or fraud should be fully investigated,” the US State Department said.
The US was “prepared to work with the next Pakistani government, regardless of political party, to advance our shared interests,” it said. US Senator Ben Cardin, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the “elections were sadly overshadowed by actions that prevented the meaningful participation of all political parties and candidates”.
“I look forward to continuing to find opportunities where the United States and Pakistan can advance our shared goals of security, stability and prosperity across South Asia,” the US senator said.
These statements are a matter of concern for India at a time when New Delhi is toying with the idea of aligning its foreign policy with US plans. But India cannot commit itself to any American program if Washington is extremely interested in Pakistan and wants to advance its “shared goals of security, stability and prosperity across South Asia”.