The Pakistani state is moving to crush Imran Khan and his party—and it wants to rig and delay elections to stop any further challenges to its rule.
Police detained the former prime minister in Lahore last week after a court sentenced him to three years in prison for allegedly selling state gifts. The move aims to bar him from standing in elections that should happen by the autumn.
It means that the current prime minister Shehbaz Sharif —who came to office without a popular vote—will be able to stand without facing a serious rival. But to make sure of the result there are now indications that elections will be delayed by a new census and a redrawing of constituency boundaries.
And thousands of activists in Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party remain in prison or facing serious charges. That makes it difficult to mobilise support on the streets.
Khan’s arrest has so far not led to displays of popular anger. The former top cricketer turned politician became prime minister in 2018 on a programme that promised a redistribution of wealth, and an end to corruption and a massive expansion of welfare provision.
And he opposed Western imperialist intervention in Pakistan. But he was also closely tied to the military, which has long been the real power in the country.
The PTI’s social programme barely got off the ground, and soon the party was acting like every other that has bent before neoliberalism. When Khan came into conflict with the generals, they moved against him. He was beaten by a parliamentary no-confidence vote last spring.
However, Khan has maintained massive popular support across the country, particularly among the middle classes and the poor.
The latest moves are an attempt not only to silence the PTI but to ensure that no popular movement for democracy and social justice can rise to replace it.