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Pakistan: What's next for ex-PM Imran Khan and his party?

Shamil Shams in Karachi
January 31, 2024

Imran Khan, Pakistan's former prime minister, has been sentenced to years in prison in cases pertaining to leaking state secrets and corruption. The verdicts cast a dark shadow on the upcoming February 8 elections.

Pakistan's former Prime Minister, Imran Khan (R) along with his wife Bushra Bibi (L) looks on as he signs surety bonds for bail in various cases
A special court in Islamabad has sentenced Khan and his wife, Bushra Bibi, to 14 years in prison on corruption chargesImage: Arif AliAFP

As Pakistan prepares for a general election next week, the main topic is once again the fate of Former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his legal battles. 

"Despite all efforts by the [military] establishment against Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, they have not been able to dent former PM Imran Khan's popularity," Harris Khalique, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a non-governmental organization, told DW.

On Wednesday, a special court in Islamabad sentenced Khan and his wife, Bushra Bibi, to 14 years in prison on corruption charges. The court ruled that Khan had sold state gifts worth millions of rupees while he was prime minister from 2018 to 2022.

A day earlier, the court had sentenced Khan and Shah Mahmood Qureshi, PTI's vice-president, to 10 years in jail on charges of having exposed official state secrets. The case refers to a diplomatic cable, or a cypher, that Khan claimed was proof of America's role in his ouster.

Khan was removed from power in a no-confidence vote in parliament in April 2022. However, the 71-year-old former cricket star-turned-politician alleged that his country's powerful military generals conspired with the United States to unseat him. Both the Pakistani army and Washington deny these allegations.

Controversial verdicts?

The two consecutive court verdicts came just 10 days before a general election scheduled for February 8. According to many analysts, the rulings have somewhat delegitimized the upcoming polls. 

PTI officials and rights groups have questioned the trial process and its fairness in both cases against Khan.

Zulfi Bukhari, a senior member of the PTI, told DW that Khan's lawyers had not been allowed to speak on his behalf or cross-examine the witnesses but added that the decision came from "a lower court, and it's already been appealed in a higher court and the Supreme Court, which we know will find justice."

He called the lower court "clearly manipulated" and said the decision had been "pre-determined," adding that the cypher document at the center of the leaked secrets conviction had already been "declassified" by the government.

Khan's opponents, however, say that the 10-year sentence for Khan is quite "lenient" because in cases pertaining to official secrets, the convict usually gets life in prison or capital punishment.

Policemen detain a supporter of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party at a protest to demand the release of Pakistanís jailed former prime minister Imran Khan, in Karachi
The general perception in Pakistan is that the powers that be have already decided to keep Khan out of politicsImage: Asif Hassan/AFP

Will popularity translate into election victory?

PTI spokesperson Raoof Hasan told DW that he foresees that the sentences will have "a positive impact" on his party.

"We will ensure to increase the number of voters reaching polling stations to vote for PTI and we will fight for the free political participation of the people in this process," Hasan said.

Even with Khan behind bars, many opinion polls put the PTI party ahead of its main rivals, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan People's Party. Khan, however, has been barred from standing in the polls.

But the big question after Khan's sentencing is: Will Khan's supporters go out to cast their ballots on February 8? 

DW spoke to several regular citizens who believe their votes won't affect the election outcome. The general perception in Pakistan is that the powers that be have already decided to keep Khan out of politics.

"The upcoming elections are one of the dullest in Pakistan's history, and keeping Imran Khan and his party out of them, mainly through judicial means, has cast a dark shadow on the entire electoral process and its legitimacy," Haider Nizamani, a lecturer at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi, told DW.

"Khan echoes the sentiment of a significant section of the country, particularly those who live in big cities; hence, these judicial decisions are tantamount to disenfranchising this section," he added.

However, the Wednesday state gifts verdict has somewhat tarnished Khan's image of a "clean" politician whose core political agenda has been eradicating corruption from Pakistan.

What Pakistan's elections mean for regional stability

Will Khan make a political comeback?

Khan faces many other legal cases, and more court verdicts are expected against him in the coming days and weeks. But that is not his biggest challenge.

Analysts say that Khan could still have a political future if he manages to patch up his fraught relationship with powerful military leaders.

"Khan was launched by the military as a project to counter other mainstream political parties. But now the party is there to stay," said Human Rights Commission of Pakistan's Harris Khalique.

"If the military's current favorite parties fall out with the generals, Khan could once again become their choice in the future. After Tuesday's verdict, it is clear that Khan will not be the next premier, but he certainly has a future in politics."

The sentiment is echoed by many Pakistanis who believe Khan is being punished for challenging the military establishment. Whether these citizens will make their voices heard through ballots on February 8 is a different matter.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru