In recent days, Imran Khan has cut an increasingly isolated figure. Since Pakistan’s former prime minister was released from jail, after a brief but explosive attempt to arrest him last month, his return has been marked by a mass exodus of the top leadership of his party, on a scale that has surprised even his critics.
Late on Thursday night, Pervez Khattak, the former chief minister and defence minister, became the latest high-profile resignation from Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. He followed in the path of Khan’s former finance minister, his former human rights minister, his former information minister and his former shipping minister, who all stepped down from senior posts or left PTI altogether in recent weeks. Dozens of other federal and state ministers have followed suit.
Most of those who have not defected are now behind bars. On Thursday night, the president of PTI, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi – who recently said he would stand behind Khan during these “difficult times” – was arrested by anti-terrorism police at his home in Lahore. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Khan’s former foreign minister, still remains in prison after his arrest in May, along with several other key ministers and thousands of rank and file PTI members.
There is little question among analysts who is orchestrating the arrests and resignations. Since Khan’s relationship with the all-powerful military establishment fell apart and led to his fall from power, he has been on a crusade against the army leadership. He has accused them of attempting to assassinate him and of being behind his arrest in May, before he was released when the courts declared his detention illegal.
In response, say analysts and PTI members, the army chief is now trying to systematically break up Khan’s party, before arresting him and putting him on trial in a military court. The likelihood of Khan being allowed to contest Pakistan’s next election, due by October, is considered by most to be very slim.
“This dramatic crackdown is a clear strategy by the military to break down all the support structures that Khan has,” said Avinash Paliwal, an associate professor in international relations at Soas University of London. “Once those structures are gone, Khan is next in line.”
Yet despite Khan’s claims that this is a “crackdown never seen before in Pakistan’s history”, Paliwal said this was instead a continuation of a pattern by the military that has marred the country’s pathway to democracy since 1958, when the first military coup took place.
Since then, the military has routinely asserted itself as the most powerful political player in Pakistan, either through direct rule or by controlling and masterminding things behind the scenes. All of the country’s most powerful political parties have fallen foul of military crackdowns and arrests. Before Khan, it was the prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, who in 2017, after falling out with the military, was toppled from power and jailed for corruption, as were several others before him.
“This is no anomaly, it is something that the military does occasionally whenever it feels that it needs to tame a civilian political outlet which is getting too big for its boots,” said Paliwal. “The military is the only party that is ruling the country.”
Khan would not be the first prime minister to be put on trial by the military. In 1977, the prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was deposed in a military coup, put on trial under martial law and then executed.
The pressures imposed on senior figures, and even those lower down the ranks of PTI, have been stark. One senior party leader who was arrested in May and has since resigned from PTI described being handed over by police to the notorious military agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
“For me they used multiple methods to pressure me to leave the party, but one of the worst was torture,” he said, requesting anonymity over fear of the military. “They tied my feet and hung me upside down and I was like a punching bag for them. They were beating with sticks and punches and kicking me.
“They called my family and threatened them and told me that they would pick up my children and entire family if I don’t leave the party. The offer I was given was that if I left PTI, I would get relief. I knew there was no other way.”
Even those lower down in the party described the pressure they were receiving from the military, with many accused of taking part in violent riots and protests that erupted on 9 May after Khan’s arrest. Homes and headquarters of the military were among the buildings attacked in the violence.
Since then, the military and government have described it as a “black day” for Pakistan and vowed to bring the full force of the state down on those who took part, while accusing Khan of being the mastermind. Those who participated, and even those who were just affiliated with the party, have been rounded up in their thousands and charged with terrorism offences, with some due to face trial in military courts.
The brother of a PTI youth wing leader said his whole family had been in hiding since 9 May, after experiencing raids on their homes and constant harassment by police. He said he had been separated from his wife and newborn baby for almost a month as a result.
“Why are they harassing me or my parents just because my brother is part of the PTI leadership?” he said. “We have received indirect messages to ‘quit PTI if you don’t want to be in this situation’. This is the worst political situation I’ve seen in my life.”
Human rights groups have expressed concern that the military are turning to their other notorious strategy of intimidation for those aligned with PTI or opposed to the military: disappearances.
The pro-PTI journalist Imran Riaz Khan has been missing since 11 May. On Sunday, Murad Akbar, the brother of a former adviser to Imran Khan, Mirza Shahzad Akbar, was picked up from the family home and has not been seen since, with the police denying any knowledge of his whereabouts.
“We all know who is responsible,” said Mirza Shahzad Akbar, who is in the UK and no longer an office bearer in PTI but is named as an accused in one of the prominent corruption cases against Khan. “My brother has no involvement in politics. Going after my brother and abducting him is to pressurise me.”
On Thursday night, the prominent lawyer and rights activist Jibran Nasir, who was an outspoken critic of the military, was picked up by unidentified men in Karachi, according to his wife.
Yet for all the pressure being exerted, the scale of the defections and speed of the collapse of PTI has exceeded that of any other party that has faced a similar crackdown. Analysts say it is a reflection of the ideological weakness of PTI under Khan, who failed to build any institutions within the party and relied solely on his own populist appeal to keep it together.
There had been mounting frustration at Khan’s political games. Though his public crusade has been to demand general elections as soon as possible, according to those in PTI’s former top leadership, and confirmed by the law minister Azam Nazeer Tarar, behind the scenes Khan twice torpedoed offers by the ruling coalition to hold elections.
The first offer came in May last year and the prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, had even written his resignation speech, but after the government approached Khan with the election proposal, he announced his “long march” protest. Not wanting to look like they were bowing to pressure, the government called off the plan.
Then, during supreme court-mandated negotiations between PTI and the government in early May, the government proposed dissolving the parliament by July and holding elections at the end of September. PTI senior leaders in the meeting were enthusiastic, but after a phone-call with Khan, were told to reject the plan and looked visibly dejected according to those in the negotiations.
As trust in Khan’s loyalty to his party members has diminished, few at the upper levels of PTI have proved willing to stand up to the military and face the likely draconian consequences, instead choosing to leave him. A former senior party leader confirmed that several of those who resigned were now in discussion for a plan to rebuild PTI “minus Khan” as a way to “save the party”.
“It is the bitter truth [that] Khan does not care about his workers and close aides and what they go through or face,” he said. “Anyone who has known him closely, knows he just thinks about himself. Khan is a big narcissist.”
Source: The Guardian