The May 9 riots and the state’s ensuing crackdown have left the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in tatters, with workers and leaders defecting, isolating chief Imran Khan because of his disastrous miscalculation. Over 300 ticket-holders and leaders have distanced themselves from the party thus far, nearly all following the same playbook: they condemn the riots triggered by Khan’s arrest, regret their failure to prevent the violence, and quit the party, with some also announcing an end to their participation in active politics. This is all occurring as Khan continues to face over 100 criminal cases and is running pillar-to-post in a bid to avoid another arrest.
The “miscalculation” that has brought the PTI to this point resulted from a mix of hubris and an inability to accurately gauge the real “red line” in Pakistan. Prior to tackling the Army, Khan had alienated most of the countries that matter to Pakistan, including China and the U.S., with the former prime minister blaming the latter for the “regime change conspiracy” that led to his ouster through a vote of no-confidence. It is abundantly clear that Khan’s aim was to use the anti-American sentiment prevalent among Pakistani masses to build a wave of popular support, but its fallout had direct consequences for a state seeking global support to stem an ongoing economic crisis. This might have been overlooked—as it has in the past—but Khan then turned on the Army that had once been his most devoted benefactor, with the swiftness of the backlash surprising even the most jaded of observers.
The PTI’s defectors have already started finding new roosts, and Khan is unlikely to escape prosecution—despite the perceived support he continues to enjoy among a segment of the judiciary. Unfortunately, the dismantling of the PTI leaves a vacuum in Pakistan’s politics that no other party can yet fill. There is valid, and growing, anger among a populace fed on years of propaganda built around a “messiah” that has now fallen from grace. Alleviating this disenfranchisement will not prove as easy as staging a press conference or offering an alternative consisting of defectors. The PTI might be down; the ideology that propelled it forward has yet to find a viable replacement.