View from Pakistan: If Imran wins, how long will he be able to hide problems?

Imran Khan will presumably move one step closer to realising his “dream” of becoming Pakistan’s Prime Minister when Nawaz and Maryam fly back into the country on Friday to face a fate unknown. Father and daughter put on brave faces during their London news conference Wednesday, saying they would go to jail in the interests of Pakistan’s long-suffering democratic project. The battle lines are drawn, and Imran Khan appears to be on the winning side. The Prime Minister-in-waiting certainly seems confident — tens of thousands of banners with the slogan “Ab Sirf Imran Khan” have been put up all over the country. By all accounts, Imran has been dealt many fortunate hands of late, even while his competitors suffer one grim setback after another. Take the bomb blast that brought Haroon Bilour’s life to an end Tuesday night, barely six years after his father Bashir met the same fate.

The gruesome killing is a clear sign that certain political forces will campaign for elections at their own peril, while others appear to be free to do and say as they please. PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari got the hint, suggesting that his party would avoid public gatherings in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. Imran was in Rahim Yar Khan the very next day, taunting the Sharifs and Bhuttos/Zardaris, insisting that the three-decade electoral duopoly of the PML(N) and PPP was over. The hyperbole takes me back to late 1999, when one Gen. Pervez Musharraf had just upended an elected government, vowing to forever banish the PML(N) and PPP from Pakistani politics. By 2007, Musharraf was eating his own words, scrambling desperately to do a Washington-backed deal with Benazir Bhutto.

More recent events are even more revealing. In the lead-up to the 2013 election, it was Nawaz Sharif and his PML(N) that were being dealt the favourable hands. Zardari and the PPP were in the dock, while Imran and the PTI were as yet not a viable option for the guardians of Pakistan’s ideological frontiers. So Nawaz romped back into Prime Minister House, securing  a fearsome majority in the National Assembly, making grand promises about ushering Pakistan into a new era of peace and prosperity. Five years later, and Nawaz is now the bad guy, having fallen out with the powers. Peace and prosperity remain a pipe dream for a very large number of Pakistanis while the “rule of law” has become a farce which serves the interests of an unaccountable state apparatus.

Unless something dramatic happens over the next 12 days — and this being Pakistan, drama is always on the cards — few would bet against the PTI securing some kind of mandate on July 25, democratically or otherwise. But even fewer expect anything like a two-thirds majority, with a cobbled-together coalition featuring dozens of (jeep-wielding) independents the most likely outcome.
So if this is Imran’s dream come true, how will it unfold? This is a country in which virtually every single Prime Minister — directly elected or not — has fallen foul of the powers that be. Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, Z.A. Bhutto, his daughter Benazir and Nawaz Sharif are the most prominent names on the list. Even Muhammad Khan Junejo found a way to get into Gen. Zia’s bad books.
If this sounds like a broken record, it is because Pakistan’s system is like a broken record. We keep going through the motions and keep reproducing the same outcome. For all of his rhetoric, there is very little that is new about Imran Khan’s method, and it is, therefore, difficult to imagine a new outcome. If he is indeed the chosen one, the real question is how long can he paper over the cracks of our heavily militarised yet broken system.

Of course, things do change — perhaps most significantly, a growing number of ordinary people in this country are now increasingly privy to the desperate games being played by the powers that be to maintain their (ever-loosening) grip on power. Nawaz Sharif’s confrontational stance has mobilised at least a part of the Punjabi heartland — add that to the decades-old struggles of those on the peripheries, and it is no surprise that there is apparently disquiet within sections of the deep state. So there is a silver lining after all: Pakistan’s broken system is on the brink, and there is more space than ever for emergent political forces that refuse to do a deal with the forces of darkness, and, instead, awaken the democratic and egalitarian instincts of this country’s long-suffering people to be the face of change that we all crave.

Postscript: It was reported that the bomber who killed Haroon Bilour was a “young boy”. How is it that “young boys” continue to be enlisted by militant groups? Where do they come from, and why can the state’s security apparatus not trace the source? Will the Prime Minister-in-waiting ask such questions? What will happen to his dream then?

By arrangement with Dawn

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