The Platform

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

Love him or hate him, Pakistan’s former prime minister knows how to read a room.

Pakistan’s seemingly never-ending political turmoil looks set to continue. Imran Khan, the head of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), recently announced an anti-government protest march toward Islamabad. Khan had earlier said that the march would continue until general elections are announced.

Before Khan’s announcement, the plan was to reach Islamabad, the country’s capital, by November 4. It was later revised to November 8-9, and then again to November 11. This is Khan’s second march after he was ousted in April through a no-confidence motion.

In a shocking development, Khan narrowly escaped an assassination attempt on November 3, on day 7 of the march in Wazirabad.

On November 4, Khan said that his political party was being pushed against the wall and attempts were being made to kill him. He further stated that conspirators decided to kill him as they were wary of his march. Khan claims that he had received reports about the assassination plot from government officials beforehand.

Surprisingly, Khan alleges that the men who had planned the attack are Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, and Major General Faisal Naseer from the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence. Khan has demanded that these three men should be ousted or resign from their posts. Khan’s demand isn’t likely to be accepted.

Since being ousted, Khan has been riding a national popular wave. Notwithstanding his immense popularity, he is unlikely to stage a political comeback. Given the immense power of the military establishment, a direct challenge will most likely be neutralized. However, this won’t translate into strengthening the country’s hybrid system, which is now failing miserably.

Pakistan is a complex mess because of its weak political system, poor leadership, and decades of bad governance. The country is heading for a deepening political and economic crisis.

Meanwhile, the country is facing acute political polarization and uncertainty leading to further instability. Given Pakistan’s immense military power and strategic location, a further weakening will create regional instability. Tense days are ahead for the country.

On the third day of the march, it stopped at Kamoke on the Grand Trunk Road. Khan’s party claims that locals are gathering at designated points. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf estimates that around 1.5 million people will reach Islamabad.

The PTI planned to stage a sit-in only and had no plans of approaching the so-called Red Zone, which houses government buildings. Despite the Sharif government’s rhetoric, a peaceful march can indeed take place. However, indications are that the march will be stopped on the outskirts of Islamabad.

Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly depending on how closely you follow Pakistani politics, Khan’s Haqeeqi Azadi March is gathering a significant public response.

As expected, the Sharif government has started talks with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf with President Arif Alvi playing a crucial role in the talks. Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi confirmed that the talks were taking place. During the talks, the date for general elections was discussed, adding that negotiations would be ongoing.

What is the meaning of these events?

Imran Khan’s vague Haqeeqi Azadi narrative calling for “real freedom for the people” has been labeled as thoroughly corrupt. The march could attain this objective through a popular soft revolution, which if thwarted, could turn into social and political upheaval. The rhetoric, although ambiguous, is resonating with the people.

Pakistanis are fed up with the weakened economy, IMF loan conditionalities, ineffectiveness of state services, high inflation, and poor governance. The public despair is creating a wave of sympathy for Khan’s march. The murder of Arshad Shareef, a prominent journalist, has somehow provided PTI sympathizers with an opportunity to criticize the military directly. Yet, the PTI is also negotiating with the military directly, bypassing the Sharif government.

Meanwhile, the military’s open criticism of Imran Khan has created more distrust among the opponents of the Sharif government. This is unprecedented in the country’s history. Khan’s continued criticism of the military’s interference in the politics of Pakistan has become more pronounced.

Imran Khan’s political protest march will inevitably act as a clarion call for action that Khan is expertly situated to use to his advantage.

Sohail Mahmood is an independent political analyst focused on global politics, U.S. foreign policy, governance, and the politics of South and West Asia.