In a recent interview, PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari “anticipated” the formation of a “national unity government” after the upcoming general elections, predicting no single party would secure a two-thirds majority. Expressing confidence of the polls occurring on Feb. 8, 2024, he opined that PMLN leader Nawaz Sharif would not become the next prime minister, hinting it was the PPP’s “turn” to lead the government. Such statements serve little apart from bolstering public perceptions of yet another “selection” in the offing, especially as PTI chief Imran Khan remains sidelined, with a majority of his party’s leadership either imprisoned or having quit after the May 9 riots—some after extended bouts of “disappearance.”
Political pundits believe a rapprochement between Sharif and Khan is necessary to achieve political stability, but this remains a tall ask after the events of May 9, casting a pall that shows no signs of abating. No political party is willing to risk supporting the PTI for fear of being tarred with the same brush, with attempts to find Khan’s “replacement” to head the party—and perhaps achieve better odds in the polls—struggling to gain ground, as his supporters are unwilling to shift allegiance. Key to this is the belief that the party’s current support solely hinges on Khan, and any alternate would find few takers, as witnessed by the Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party, widely seen as the new “king’s party.”
Unfortunately, Imran Khan’s plight is likely to worsen if he continues his current policy of agitation politics. Historically, parties that take on Pakistan’s security establishment must show contrition, take a step back, and negotiate a comeback from the opposition, while shunning any violence that could be used to further pressure them. Tragically, this also usually coincides with the same party’s peak of popularity, highlighting the reason almost every election in Pakistan’s history has proven controversial. What must be realized by the PTI—and by extension Khan—is that it can only secure the legitimacy needed to form government if it participates in elections, which requires that it take no actions that could expel it from the regular democratic process.
Whether willing or unwilling, Khan cannot afford to run a parallel state or rule a mob as a non-state actor. He must therefore remain within the system if he wants to continue leading Pakistan, which requires an “agreement” akin to a compromise. Reportedly, many within the PTI now believe achieving this requires restraining its supporters from any direct confrontation with security forces, recognizing it as political suicide. Whether or not Khan heeds their advice will determine the space available to the PTI in the upcoming polls to pave the way for its eventual return to power.