With its chairman Imran Khan in jail, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) appears rudderless, even as pundits maintain its vote bank is intact and may prove significant in the Feb. 8, 2024 polls. With the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the PTI is one of three major political parties of Pakistan, and was the largest party in terms of representation in the National Assembly after the 2018 elections—before a majority of them resigned en masse. The PTI also claims to have a registered membership exceeding 10 million people in Pakistan and abroad—one of the largest in the world—though its voters appeared to sit out the 1997 and 2002 general elections, when it couldn’t even secure a single seat in Parliament.
In recent days, many anchors have conducted “man on the street” interviews, highlighting Khan’s continued support despite his incarceration. Reactions from PTI supporters over the arrest range between confusion and frustration, with many making clear they would consider elections without Khan’s participation “unfair.” This view is bolstered by the state’s ongoing crackdown against the party following the May 9 riots that targeted civil and military targets. Last month, a planned PTI rally in Lahore’s NA-123 constituency was called off after police raided the party’s office; this was followed last week with a similar raid on the office of a party leader in Gujranwala. Several of its leaders remain in hiding, while others are jailed on various pretexts. The PTI, rightly, considers this a concerted effort to hamper the launch of its election campaign. Amidst the mounting frustration, some party leaders have started to admit that Imran Khan “erred” in taking on the Army; until 2021, the party was the darling of the establishment, using the support to sideline its opponents while ignoring the necessity of grooming its mid-tier leadership.
Not helping the PTI is the ongoing exodus of party leaders, many of them “electables” that had only joined it in the lead-up to the 2018 polls. The PTI alleges this is the result of “undue pressure,” including harassment and threats, and has repeatedly called on the judiciary to wade into the matter to ensure its political and fundamental rights. Thus far, these pleas have been ignored. With elections rapidly approaching, however, the party—and the state—need to reach a détente. Even if Khan cannot participate in polls, his party must to ensure its supporters do not feel disenfranchised and the polls do not become controversial before the results are even out.