May 29, 2023

Can PTI afford to be ‘anti-establishment’?

On April 9 Pakistan witnessed a huge political circus as the joint opposition presented the no-confidence motion against then prime minister Imran Khan. The National Assembly session went on to 12:00 am, the Supreme Court was reopened, Islamabad High Court was also opened at midnight. 

There were reports that PM Khan had dismissed an “important personality” from his post. There were rumours of a helicopter circulating in Islamabad. Some on social media suggested that there was a physical civil-military rift at the PM House. 

The ruckus ended after former National Assembly speaker announced his resignation, PTI lawmakers walked out of the house, and the no-confidence motion was successfully passed against Khan. Amidst all this, what also transpired, something that has graced national politics many a time, was the surge in anti-establishment uproar on social media – this time by PTI voters and followers. 

Critics say Khan has developed a polarising narrative from the onset and now his supporters are touching the boundaries of the polarisation. Observers also highlight how PTI rules the social media campaign game in Pakistan. 

Khan appears to have once again successfully convinced his supporters that there was a foreign conspiracy against him and internal elements, including politicians and the military establishment, are complicit in this “conspiracy” to oust him. 

The narrative began with a letter attributed to the US government, which continues to echo on social media with hashtags dismissing the incumbent government as ‘imported’. It is backed with powerful rallies and street protests on the ground. 

The anti-establishment narrative was stoked by statements from some journalists like Imran Riaz Khan who quoted the former prime minister saying “Is there anyone left who is not against me?”. Analysts, again, point to the former prime minister successfully reinforcing the narrative that he alone is fighting against the many enemies of the country. 

Right after Khan’s removal, PTI supporters started trashing the military, especially Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa on social media, blaming him for the toppling of the PTI government. The criticism became so strong that the DG ISPR had to call a press conference to address the issue.

Although Khan himself has not said anything against the military leadership, and even said on Twitter this week that the army is ‘more important’ than him, there remains clear, even if officially unsaid, hostility between the PTI and the army. 

This is further fueled by PTI leaders like Fawad Chaudhry claiming that Khan’s government would still have been in power had relations with the establishment not soured. 

After the presser of DG ISPR, in which General Babar Iftikhar said the PTI government had asked the army chief to interfere in the political situation, PTI leader and former minister for human rights, Shireen Mazari strongly rejected the claim. 

“Let me be clear — I am stating on record [that the] PM did not call [the military] for help on ‘breaking [the political] deadlock’. The [military] sought the [meeting through] Defence Minister Khattak and they put forward the [three] proposals of either PM resigning or taking part in VNC or fresh elections!” 

The question that many analysts are asking is how long would the PTI continue to stay on this, albeit implicit, anti-establishment route. They insist that since it still remains impossible to come to power without support from the establishment, the party, and Khan himself, will gradually move back to the anti-corruption narrative focusing on the incumbent government.

Furthermore, with the allied government facing an array of challenges – one of which is keeping the alliance itself in place – Khan can look to keep the heat on the government ahead of the elections. But triumphing there would depend on getting in the kingmaker’s good books.

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