Did Imran win or did the status quo lose?

Mosharraf Zaidi
Wednesday, Feb 21, 2024

You know how to tell who is winning a game? Look carefully at the players. The ones on the back foot, playing defensively, trying to eke out their survival? That is the team that is losing.

Before the February 8 election, all manner of effort was invested in denying it victory. Still, the PTI won on election day. After the election, all manner of effort is being invested in denying it victory. What is the likely mid- to long-term outcome going to be? It should not be hard to guess, given that every effort made to deny PTI its victories produces yet another L (for loss). Every day the PTI is denied the space to be, to breathe, to win? The PTI wins just a little bit more.

Pakistan is in a generational quandary. Dinosaurs are standing in front of a clock, in unquiet desperation, watching the minutes and hours ticking away – weathered and beaten by time. Jumping up and down, shouting at, screaming at, threatening time as it passes rapidly past them. Time doesn’t care about how bad extinction makes a species feel. Pakistan’s formal institutions – its bureaucratic, judicial and political class in particular – have been endangered for a long time. They believe they are in a battle for survival, but time has run out on them. Every indicator of national health is in the red. This isn’t an accounting or a rule of law or a modernity or even a geopolitics problem. This is a problem of time. Extinction is cruel. Time has run out.

The critical question, at least in Rawalpindi, isn’t who will be prime minister or even whether the PTI will be in government or not. These are both second-order issues. The critical question is, with time having run out, who does Pakistan belong to now: Imran Khan or the Pakistani voter?

The attempt to make this distinction will be seen as sacrilege by the Khan faithful, but it is perhaps the single most important domestic policy issue in Pakistan today. To put this distinction differently, the question is simple: did Imran Khan win the election or did the status quo lose it?

If Pindi has concluded that the incredible PTI showing in the February 8 election is mostly a product of Imran Khan and his populist politics, then the effort to continue muzzling the PTI and its rank and file will probably continue. If instead it sees the election result as more of a generational expression of Pakistan’s overwhelmingly youthful, underserved and pessimistic populace being done with the status quo of dinosaurs, then the pressure on the PTI is likely to start relenting. More space for the PTI to restore its standing as a power broker is then likely to start to emerge.

The constant references to the current game being a zero-sum equation between individuals (military or civilian) forces the analysis into territory where personalities, such as Imran Khan, are the center of gravity. They may well be. But if it is all about individual personalities, and the agency of ordinary Pakistanis – such as those that voted for PTI-endorsed independents – is seen as negligible or menial, then it necessitates a steep escalatory ladder and leaves no wiggle room.

If large-scale, system-wide dynamics are more important than individuals, military or civilian, then the heart of the conversation is the agency of Pakistanis – be they among the roughly 20 million that voted for PTI-endorsed candidates, or the nearly twice as many that voted for candidates that were not endorsed by the PTI.

Clearly, the dangers of populism have been central to macro-level decision-making in the country for several months. The events of May 9 were decisive in setting the direction for the elections. The results of the elections have, however, as they very much should, become a pivotal moment. One way for Pindi to think about the election result is from the perspective of what helps feed populism and what helps defeat it.

Populism requires the adoption of everyone but the populist as the enemy. This binarism often forces those at the receiving end of populist bombast – be it social media trolling, or political blackmailing, or the manufacturing of false narratives – to respond in kind. The in-kind response to populism is literally akin to adding petrol to an already raging fire. The populist doesn’t just want you to react; the populist needs you to react. The populist cannot exist and cannot survive without your reaction. An absence of a reaction will render a populist incapable of pointing at his or her perceived adversary and saying: “See, I told you so!”.

The question Pindi needs to assess is the degree to which February 8 was a populist wave versus the degree to which it was a referendum on the Pakistani status quo. It is entirely possible that these two things are not wholly distinct, are not mutually exclusive and cannot be separated in their entirety. It is however important to distinguish what February 8 was more of. Was it more of a populist wave that happens to be targeting the status quo? Or was it more of a rejection of the status quo, articulated through the most convenient device available: the populism of the PTI and its leader?

If February 8 was the product of a populist wave, then the anxieties of military and civilian strategists who do not worship at the PTI altar will only have been enhanced by the result of the election. Unconstitutional, illegal, indefensible and immoral as they are, the suppression of PTI votes and the denial of fair vote-counting processes in numerous constituencies can be seen as an expression of these anxieties.

Instead, if February 8 was the product of accumulated fatigue with the status quo, then whether one is for the PTI or not for it becomes secondary. Every party, every rickshaw driver, every leader, every vegetable seller, every farmer – every Pakistani seems to agree that the country is in trouble and needs to be run differently. The interesting thing here would be exactly what manifested itself as the status quo to the voter in the run-up to February 8.

It is here, at this juncture, that it becomes even more clear as to what February 8 really was. The voter did not see or hear Imran Khan for months prior to the election. So, the assertion that the primary driver of the voter was Khan’s populism seems odd. Khan had no loudspeaker or microphone with which he could misguide his followers. He was busy running on his treadmill in jail.

What the voter did see, hear, and feel however, in the weeks and months before the February 8 election was the wide spectrum of status quo forces in Pakistan. The caretaker government, despite some bright spots, was a who’s who of retired bureaucrats, judges and generals: quite literally a status quo parade. The court decisions that seemed to have been made largely to punish the PTI smacked also of the tactics of the status quo. The arbitrary arrests and harassment of PTI workers and supporters, also classical status quo.

Pakistan’s most powerful institutions and individuals have a chance to course correct – this week and next. The Election Commission and its leadership need to be held to account, the wrongdoings of February 9 need to be fixed, and the efforts to suppress citizen expression – even misinformed expression – need to stop. Pakistan needs a wholesale series of changes. None of those changes will be possible if leaders of institutions and political parties continue to treat politics and governance like a zero-sum game.

The status quo had its chance. Until February 7, it had a chance to convince the Pakistani people that it knew best and could solve the people’s problems. It didn’t. Instead, it solved problems for the same tiny sliver of uber elites for whom problems are always solved. The dinosaurs have had their day. This isn’t an accounting or a rule of law or a modernity or even a geopolitics problem. This is a problem of time. Extinction is cruel. Time has run out.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.