In a series of tweets on July 21, Pakistan’s ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan celebrated his PTI party’s surprise landslide victory in local elections.
The win brought the PTI back into control of Pakistan’s biggest province, Punjab. And it rejuvenated Khan’s hopes for a political comeback after being ousted from national office in April, when a no-confidence vote in parliament put a coalition government in power.
Since then, Khan has been attacking the United States, claiming that it somehow rigged the April vote against him behind the scenes. And he’s continued to demonize the U.S., now with the Punjab results as a new springboard.
Khan has produced no evidence the U.S. intervened, or attempted to intervene, to oust him. Nor is this the first time Khan has used baseless election interference claims to gin up sympathy.
Pakistan’s elections have historically been contentious. Khan was chosen as Pakistan’s prime minister in 2018 following a chaotic and violent election cycle.
He won then by positioning himself as an anti-corruption populist, and he received support from Pakistan’s military. The country has been under intermittent military-rule since winning independence from Britain in 1947, and military leaders are key power brokers.
In addition to its political clout, the military often guides Pakistan’s foreign policy and has worked closely with the U.S. government to counter terrorist groups.
As the winner, Khan defended the legitimacy of the 2018 election that brought him to the prime minister’s office. Critics charged, however, that the election was marred by arbitrary detention and by violations of press freedom and the rights to assembly and free speech.
Opposition politicians reported being arrested and detained by the military as part of a campaign to pressure them to publicly support Khan and the PTI.
Khan’s tenure as prime minister did not bring stability. His popularity diminished as he struggled to deliver on his campaign promises, particularly economic reform. Pakistan’s military establishment also grew impatient.
As a result, Khan’s relationship soured with the military, led by Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. The two publicly disagreed over key appointments and foreign policy matters.
And while Bajwa declared political neutrality, he distanced himself from Khan. That distance was widely viewed as a key factor in Khan’s ouster.
As the military cooled for Khan, opposition parties united to call for a vote of no-confidence.
Shabhaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), led those efforts. Khan attempted to dissolve the National Assembly and move for new elections, but the effort was blocked by Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
When the no-confidence vote succeeded, Sharif was elected by the National Assembly to replace Khan as prime minister and continues in that role.
Sharif is the brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was sentenced to prison time in two 2018 corruption cases arising from the Panama Papers disclosures. The expose about secret offshore accounts connected Sharif and his children to high-end properties in London.
Nawaz Sharif left the country in 2019. He has denied accusations of corruption, but Pakistani courts have turned down his appeals.
Khan’s PTI party and Sharif’s PML-N have been intense competitors since the 2018 voting.
In an effort to delegitimize the April vote, Khan has accused Shabhaz Sharif and the PML-N of colluding in a U.S. initiative to interfere in Pakistan’s domestic affairs. Meantime, he’s characterized the military’s behavior as part of a U.S.-backed coup.
Trouble is, Khan hasn’t backed it up. And both the U.S. State Department and Pakistani military claim there’s no evidence behind Khan’s claims.
In response to widespread public and institutional opposition to Khan in the spring of 2022, a PTI minister claimed that the vote of no-confidence against him was part of an “international conspiracy” for not allowing the U.S. to build a counter-terror base on Pakistani soil.
Khan has also accused U.S. diplomat Donald Lu of orchestrating the vote of no-confidence, claiming the “intervention” was conveyed verbally and through a written “cipher.”
Khan has yet to produce verifiable evidence to substantiate this claim. Responding to questions from reporters on April 4, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “There is absolutely no truth to the allegations.”
Once the country’s Supreme Court blocked his efforts to overturn the April vote, Khan and PTI leaders set their sights on July by-elections in Punjab. The by-elections provided an opportunity to gain seats in the National Assembly and repudiate Sharif’s mandate as prime minister.
Khan’s win there matters because Punjab is Pakistan’s most populous and economically significant province and a stronghold of support for his PML-N opponents. He spent the months ahead of the vote campaigning on claims of election interference.
Can the strategy keep working? General elections in Pakistan are scheduled for August 2023, but they can be held sooner under several different scenarios.
For instance, the ruling coalition in the National Assembly could agree to dissolve the government, or individual members could defect, leading the coalition to lose its majority. Sharif also has the power to dissolve the government for new elections.
It appears the earliest a vote could be held is October. That is what the Pakistan Election Commission said in a recent report concluding it would take until then to prepare.