Supporters of Imran Khan and his PTI cheer as they attend a political campaign rally ahead of the 2018 general election, in Multan on July 20, 2018. Photo: AFP / SS Mirza

Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a stalwart of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, said in a recent TV interview that the 2014 sit-in protest staged by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) against the PML-N government of the day was backed by the military establishment.

This allegation coming from the mouth of an ex-prime minister needs to be investigated at the highest level, as Pakistan today is faced with economic and governance problems due to PTI’s immature politics and the invisible hands backing the party.

However, if one looks at the past games of thrones of Pakistani politics, it is not difficult to understand that sooner or later Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI too will be ditched by the establishment. The question arises, will PTI be able to fight an electoral battle against the mainstream political parties such as the PML-N and Pakistan Peoples Party on its own?

So let us try to discuss the electoral future of PTI if it is pitted against the opposition parties in a general election without the support of invisible forces.

The 2018 general election brought Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf into power. The party was able to grab a total of 149 direct and indirect National Assembly (NA) seats. The rise of Imran Khan to power was thus the culmination of a 22-year political career.

In contrast to the early years when Khan was very clear in his stance against the status quo, throughout his political career he has been aligning with the forces of the status quo. He supported General Pervez Musharraf’s controversial referendum on extending his presidency for five years, but in the general election of 2002 Khan only managed to win his own seat of Mianwali, and that was the only seat won by PTI.

Khan then joined hands with Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to oust Musharraf. However, his inability to understand the dynamics of electoral politics led him to boycott the 2008 election. After 2008, Khan gradually started reshaping his style of politics and aligned with the powerful quarters in order to gain entry to the power corridors.

In 2011, a huge public gathering at the Minar-e-Pakistan monument in Lahore was the launch of a new PTI that not only had the popular support of youth but also was backed by the invisible forces. The former spy chief retired Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha is thought by many to have been the architect behind that public rally and PTI’s branding as a party that was supposed to bring change in the system.

The general elections of 2013 saw a rise in the tally of PTI seats, as it was able to win 27 NA seats and also formed a coalition government in the province of Khyber Pakhtunwa. This was the emergence of PTI in the electoral politics of Pakistan. However, it was also a compromise on its narrative of bringing change against the status quo.

One of the founding members of PTI, Akbar S Babar, has told this correspondent many times that Imran Khan, in a hurry to attain power, compromised on the integrity and the ideology of the party. After the 2013 elections Khan with the help of the invisible forces staged protests against the PML-N government.

Before the 2018 election, both Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz were sent behind bars, and Imran Khan was given an empty field in Punjab to conquer at the polls. The PPP and other ethnic and nationalist parties were also not given a level playing field and as a result, PTI emerged victorious.

However, the problem started after the victory, as in its effort to win the election PTI had made unrealistic promises, and now it has been almost 20 months that it has been in power, and other than taking U-turns, it has failed miserably to fulfill its promises.

The crippled economy and PTI’s inability to fix it has burdened the masses with inflation and high utility bills, while the country’s dependence on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has increased the foreign and domestic debts.

The recent scandal over the wheat and sugar markets in which close aides of Khan were named, and then the allegation against Dr Zafar Mirza, the health adviser to the prime minister, on smuggling face masks at a time when the country needed them most to counter the Covid-19 pandemic, just showed the incompetency and misgovernance of the PTI regime.

From appointing his own cronies to key posts to favoring those who sponsored the PTI electoral campaign, Imran Khan has time and again proved that he is no different from a traditional power-hungry politician. It is under his government that freedom of the press and space for dissent have shrunk, while “accountability” is being used as a tool to target political opponents.

The Kashmir fiasco and the government’s inability to secure international support on that issue, and then the Kuala Lumpur summit fiasco, have also shown that the foreign-policy front too is in a mess, and that PTI has no clue about what to do about .

There is no doubt that Imran Khan enjoys a cult vote bank and a fan club that considers him a saint, but that will not be enough to allow him to win a fair election. It will also not be easy for the powerful quarters again to manage the entire political discourse to bring Khan to power again.

His only chance of survival remains getting out of the narcissist mindset, and he needs to accept that like other human beings he has some good traits and some disadvantages. He should realize that the electable politicians will ditch PTI if early elections are announced, and even if he manages to complete his five-year term, they will ditch him near the next election if the winds are blowing against him at that time.

So, in the long run, it will be difficult for Khan even to keep his own party intact. It also needs to be remembered that unlike the 2018 elections, next time he will not have the unique selling point of a Mr Clean who has never being given an opportunity to govern, as not only has his party has ruled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for seven years, by the time of the next general elections, he will have served a good amount of time in the center.

The poor governance in KP and Punjab provinces and in Islamabad by PTI will put it at a disadvantage in the next elections, while the foreign funding case is a sword hanging over Khan and his party. The other problem is that PTI has not done any homework to strengthen itself on the grassroots level.

We have seen how parties like PML-Q vanished as soon as they lost the backing from the powerful quarters. Though in Khan’s case he still has his own cult, at any given time if a level playing field is given to all the political parties, PTI is not capable of winning more than 25 or 30 NA seats on its own.

So unless another general election is rigged and the ballots of the masses are stolen, it will not be possible for PTI to win more than a couple of dozen or so seats in the National Assembly. The handwriting is on the wall that the party is over for Imran Khan and his PTI, and the day general elections are held many of its candidates will not even be able to finish in third or fourth place.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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