Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is now in jail because he overlooked the single biggest lesson from the political history of the country: The house wins every time. For months, his arrest and sentencing were the writing on the wall, but he failed to heed the warning signs.
It was not his first time, though, as he has a history of missing opportunities as a politician. There were three instances when Khan had the chance to be a political force and redefine his fortunes, but he chose poorly.
The first was in 2013, when his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), managed to grab a considerable presence in elections, winning the third-most seats in the National Assembly and the most in the provincial assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Rather than training his party on electoral-political underpinnings, however, Khan embarked on a journey of agitation.
Despite lecturing on the importance of parliament and the workings of parliamentary democracies in the West, he did not take the democratic route. Within a year of the elections, he began his 126-day-long protest in front of the parliament building in an attempt to force Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign. His party members resigned from the National Assembly en masse, calling it fraudulent. Khan also ridiculed the legislature and announced a civil-disobedience movement that included a refusal to pay taxes and utility bills.
But the protest failed to spark a change, despite alleged support from some corners of the establishment. Therefore, Khan readily embraced the face-saving chance to call off the protest in the name of national unity following the grisly Peshawar school attack.
In April 2015, PTI members rejoined the parliament to play the role of a true opposition. But their supremo was not interested in transforming himself into a political force, nor did lengthy parliamentary debates attract him. He rarely participated in dialogue with other political stakeholders, whom he called thieves. Khan was only interested in burnishing his own stock.
His moment came in 2017, when the Panama Papers leaks publicized foreign companies and properties owned by the children of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Khan became a media obsession and a potential contender to succeed Sharif, who had fallen out of favor. When the Supreme Court disqualified Sharif and sentenced him to 10 years, Khan’s PTI became the new parking lot for “electables” who switch to parties seen as favorites. The entry into the PTI of electables, and the corresponding clamp down on Sharif’s party, created a favorable political environment that catapulted Khan into office as the 22nd prime minister of Pakistan – and hence came his second missed chance.
As the prime minister, Khan refused to work with the opposition political parties and instead chose to undermine and quash them under quasi-dictatorialism. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) laws were used to throw opposition leaders into jail and media houses faced severe pressure from the government to deplatform Sharif.
Khan defended the arrests and equated criticism of the military’s influence on politics to treason. The PTI’s social media teams and advisers trolled critics and called them paid mouthpieces of former rulers. The one-man-show governance approach – inspired by the Turkish model, where Recep Tayyip Erdogan leads in every domain, and the China model, where Xi Jinping uses anti-corruption to cement his power – was evident in parliament, where the ruling party decried the opposition and refused to engage it on legislation. Opposition lawmakers consistently pointed out issues and reminded Khan that he was one among them, but their voices fell on deaf ears.
Instead, Khan relied on the establishment for “getting jobs done” and perhaps considered parliament an unnecessary stakeholder. As an example, the decision to rehabilitate some TTP members in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was made without significant debate in the legislature.
His authoritarian instincts were also evident in party politics. The selection of chief ministers in the largest province, Punjab, and the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa bordering Afghanistan, was just one example of the one-man-show model. The opposition and even fellow PTI members repeatedly questioned the ability of underqualified chief ministers. The chief ministers did not change, but many party members who dared offer a critique were sidelined. Within the party, Khan decided the fate of every individual. Party democracy – an unfamiliar practice for most political parties in Pakistan – remained a distant dream.
With Khan seen as the Messiah, his supporters also did not care about due process and defended his decisions. In the eyes of Khan’s fans, those who stood by their leader’s words and actions were loyal to the country and those who critiqued him or debunked his half-baked solutions were traitors and corrupt. Khan – like populists in other parts of the world – represented everything that was the right thing to do.
Unsurprisingly, then, Khan’s supporters interpreted the ouster of their leader from the prime minister’s office through a Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)-led vote of no confidence as unfair and undemocratic. They immediately internalized the new conspiracy theory that the United States wanted their leader ousted partly due to his position on the Russia-Ukraine war. If Khan said it, it was true for his support base, without any cross-checking or evidence needed. They also justified Khan’s decision to dishonor Pakistan’s agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
Khan’s ouster in April 2022 provided him with a third – and final – opportunity to transform himself into a political force. Once again, he missed his chance.
Khan amplified the “U.S.-backed regime change” conspiracy and misled the electorate. His stance on the United States’ role and collusion between PDM parties and the military establishment continued to change; what did not change was his position that the vote of no confidence was illegal. Khan blamed the then-army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, for all the missteps in his rule and pointed to Bajwa’s involvement in the regime change operation. Khan denounced the PDM government as “imported,” claiming it came into power due to the U.S.-establishment collusion in Pakistan.
Soon after his ouster, Khan announced his party members’ resignation from their National Assembly seats. Without considering the mandate voters had entrusted to PTI, Khan sought to use their legislative seats as leverage to force the government to resign and announce fresh elections.
Once again, Khan’s impatience proved disastrous. He refused to negotiate with the PDM “thieves” and used every possible pressure tactic – from contesting elections for all the PTI-vacated National Assembly seats in by-elections to panicking the populace – to derail the government.
Soon after the vote of no confidence in April, he embarked on a series of political rallies. At first, it appeared to be the start of an election campaign. This perception changed when he announced a 2014-type march toward Islamabad to force the government to announce the election date. Like 2014, the ineffectual march ended with a face-saver – this time by the Supreme Court.
However, unlike in the past Khan did not enjoy a favorable political environment. Sensing the tides were against him, Khan’s impatience only grew. He understood that the powerful forces that helped him come into power could also keep him from returning to office.
Khan started another march toward Islamabad in October to ensure the establishment’s neutrality, if not their favor. However, this time his goal was not a new election but to influence the appointment of a new army chief. One of the contenders for the position was the former Inter-Services Intelligence chief, who was removed within the first year of his tenure.
This march came to a halt after an assassination attempt by a fanatic. And from then on, the tide turned.
Khan named a serving general and the prime minister as conspirators in his complaint to the police over the shooting. His social media team depicted the military leadership and government as American stooges that kept the country enslaved to the United States’ desires. As antagonism grew, there was no going back.
And that was deliberate: Khan preferred revolutionary fervor to mobilize his support base to make a political comeback.
Finally, the boiling point came on May 9, 2023, when Khan was arrested from an Islamabad court over graft charges. PTI members thronged the streets and directed their rage against military installations. The 24 hours following Khan’s arrest witnessed unprecedented chaos in the streets that ended only when a fierce response commenced.
The retort was all-encompassing. It scuttled the PTI’s leadership, narrative, and popularity. Hundreds of party leaders quit the party. Police rounded up thousands. The legal noose around Khan (whom the court had acquitted on the third day after his arrest) also tightened as the number of cases against him increased. He was deplatformed from mainstream media and his support base in journalistic circles either fled the country or sidelined themselves. He appeared frail and helpless for the first time in his political career.
And then, for the first time, Khan extended an olive branch to the people he long called “thieves.” But it was too little, too late. On August 5, 2023, a junior court judge sentenced him to three years in prison and disqualified him for five years on graft charges.
It is early to comment on how history will judge Iman Khan, but many will remember him as one of Pakistan’s popular political icons who missed the opportunity to steer the country toward becoming a modern, democratic nation-state. They will likely remember him as the one who missed the chance to make his support base democratic and republican – and thereby transform himself into a true political force to reckon with.