Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) on Sunday, emerged as a clear winner in the crucial Punjab Assembly by-elections. PTI won 15 of the 20 seats that went to the polls. The seats had been vacated after the disqualification of PTI members who had voted for the rival party PML-N’s candidate for Punjab Chief Minister’s office. PML-N, who had fielded PTI turncoats in all but one constituency could win only four seats.
The elections mark a watershed moment in the recent history of Pakistan. It is a vote against the establishment’s intervention in politics and an expression of open support for civilian supremacy.
Imran Khan Launches Crusade against the Establishment
Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) started as an establishment-friendly party. During the last general elections in 2018, political commentators alleged that Khan came to power because of the covert backing of the establishment. The “establishment” refers to the powerful military of Pakistan. However, recently Khan fell off from favour with the establishment. He was removed from Prime Minister’s post after some opposition parties formed a coalition. Khan alleged that the coalition is backed by the establishment.
Since then Khan has led a crusade against the establishment and the “imported government”. He has alleged that the United States conspired against him by bringing the opposition parties together. His supporters refer to the new government as an “imported government”.
Khan’s anti-US Position
When Khan was in power, he steered Pakistan away from its traditional ally US. He focused on building stronger relations with China and Russia. Two months before he was removed from the office he had visited Russia.
The visit put Pakistan in an embarrassing position. Khan met Russian President Putin in Moscow on February 25. The meeting with Putin came a day after he authorized a special military operation in Ukraine.
The visit irked the US. The US State Department conveyed its displeasure to the US.
Imran Khan Denies Base to the US
Pakistan’s March towards Democratic Reform
Before its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US had been lobbying in Pakistan for a military/CIA base. The US sought the base to conduct military operations in Afghanistan.
Imran Khan denied permission for a US base. In an interview with Axios HBO’s Jonathan Swan, Khan said that he would “absolutely not” allow the US to have a base in Pakistan.
Even though Pakistan had helped the US negotiations with Pakistan, the denial of a base turned the US hostile towards Pakistan.
However, for Imran Khan domestically, the decision carried popular support. The Pakistani people’s previous experience with the US bases in their country had not been good.
Hence, Khan’s withstanding of the US government’s pressure was exemplary. It garnered him support from the Pakistani public, cutting across the ideological divisions.
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Establishment’s Relations with the US
Traditionally, Pakistan has been a US ally. The establishment has been closer to the US. Pakistan was a part of two defence organizations of the US- Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and Central Treaty Organization (CENTO).
Further, the US also funded the Pakistani army to wage war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. The Pakistani army also supported the US war in Afghanistan.
Therefore, the Pakistani army has been receiving funds and aid from the US for most of Pakistan’s independent history.
It was painful for the army to see Khan steer away Pakistan from the US. Days before Imran Khan’s ouster, the Pakistan Army Chief said that “we share a long and excellent strategic relationship with the US”. This comment came in the backdrop of Khan’s allegations that the US was behind the no-confidence motion brought against him.
Why are Punjab By-elections Crucial?
All the votes cast in the support of PTI are in support of – (i) its anti-establishment rhetoric and (ii) Khan’s conspiracy theory that the US was behind his ouster. The vote is also against the current federal government’s policies.
Punjab is one of the most important provinces of Pakistan. It is a stronghold of establishment supporters. Punjabis dominate the army.
Hence, the anti-establishment vote points to the losing support for the Pakistani army in Punjab.
Pakistani urban Middle-Class Turning against Army
The losing support for the army was evident in the huge protest rallies that followed Imran Khan’s ouster. Pakistan’s urban middle class was on the streets in support of Imran Khan. They raised slogans against the US and the Pakistani army.
The urban middle class in Pakistan is known for its support for the establishment. Hence, the shift in its support for a civil leader is interesting.
Beginning of a Democratic Reform?
Various research studies point to the fact that most of the Pakistani population is anti-American in their attitude. At the same time, the Pakistani army happens to be one of the most trusted and supported institutions of the country.
When the civilian government steered away from the US, the army chose to maintain its relations with the US. As a result, the Pakistani people have taken the civilian government’s side this time.
It might be the beginning of the downfall of the all-powerful Pakistani army. It will be interesting to see if Imran Khan can sustain this movement.