Twenty-seven-years after its founding, former cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party is at the crossroads, facing a likely ban by the coalition government following the unprecedented attack on sensitive military installations by his supporters earlier this month.
The mainstream parties Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Pakistan-Fazl (JUI-F) backed by the powerful military establishment are strongly in favour of banning the PTI for "promoting extremism and violence".
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif has already indicated that the ruling coalition will propose a ban on the PTI in Parliament soon. "All coalition partners of the federal government will be taken on board in this issue," Asif told reporters.
The PTI, which was founded on April 25, 1996, in Lahore, by Imran Khan, is facing the most difficult phase.
According to the latest count, over 60 leaders of PTI have announced parting ways with the party and Khan, citing attacks on military installations. And there are reports that almost all the first, second and third-tier leadership of PTI will quit under pressure in the coming days. The prominent PTI leaders who have quit so far include former ministers Asad Umar, Shireen Mazari, Fawad Chaudhry and Firdous Ashiq Awan.
Khan, the 70-year-old cricketer-turned-politician, has declared that his fight will continue even if he remains alone in the party.
For the first 15 years, the PTI remained a small or one-seat party in Parliament. Khan won the national assembly seat in the 2002 general elections from his hometown Mianwali. This was the only seat the PTI won.
Subsequently, PTI boycotted the 2008 elections to protest that it would not contest under a military dictator, Gen Pervez Musharraf.
Then came the iconic moment for PTI October 30, 2011 jalsa (public meeting) at Lahore's Minar-e-Pakistan in which thousands of people especially youth and women showed up in huge numbers.
Khan said that the party took off from this rally and was recognised as a strong political force after struggling for 15 years. Khan compared his movement to Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah's 'Pakistan Movement'. He would call it the struggle for Naya' (new) Pakistan. His political detractors, however, give credit to then ISI chief Gen Shuja Pasha for relaunching of PTI and campaigning for it'.
The PTI under Khan launched an anti-corruption narrative targeting his political opponents with the slogan of thief and corrupt.'
With an anti-corruption narrative, the PTI contested in the 2013 elections and received 7.5 million votes, the second-highest number of votes received by any party in the polls. It managed to form a government in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province.
The PTI under Khan staged a 126-day sit-in in Islamabad in 2014 against then prime minister Nawaz Sharif to press him to step down on the issue of rigging in the 2013 polls. The then-ruling PML-N had alleged that the military establishment was behind the PTI sit-in as it wanted to teach a lesson to Sharif for instituting a treason case against former army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf.
In the 2018 elections, the PTI came to power in the Centre for the first time. Before the elections, over 60 top prominent Pakistani leaders had joined the PTI. The PML-N had accused the army of forcing these stalwarts to pick the flag of the PTI.
The PTI also won in Punjab and KPK provinces and formed governments there. The opposition PML-N, PPP, JUI-F had alleged that the military rigged the elections to install its puppet' Khan.
As Khan's relations with the military leadership deteriorated primarily on the appointment of incumbent ISI chief Nadeem Anjum, he was subsequently ousted as the prime minister through a no-confidence motion in April 2022.
Following his ouster, Khan launched an anti-army narrative that is said to be the main reason behind the May 9 attacks on the military installations, including the Pakistan Army General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi and the Corps Commander House in Lahore.
Political observers say that the military establishment has now decided in principle to pack up Khan and his party throwing it out of the political arena.
Prominent political analyst Zahid Hussain says the May 9 incidents have changed the country's political landscape and have brought the stand-off between the PTI and the security establishment to a head.
"Perhaps Khan believed that a show of street power could force the military establishment to step back. He singled out the army chief for his attack. He accused Army Chief Gen Asim Munir of attempting to impede his path to reclaiming power.
"Khan seemed to have gotten carried away by the perception built by his supporters on social media of a division within the top brass of the army. But that brinkmanship has boomeranged. The widespread violence targeting army installations, particularly the vandalising of memorials to martyred soldiers, has provoked an intense reaction, especially in the battleground of Punjab, Hussain says.
Following the violence, the security agencies launched a vicious clampdown on PTI supporters not witnessed in recent times. There have also been reports of brutal violations of human rights, even the senior members who haven't left the party are being compelled to denounce the violence.
Defence analyst Dr Hasan Askari told the Press Trust of India that even if the PTI is not banned, with so many leaders jumping from its ship, the future of Khan is uncertain, and his party might be irrelevant in the next elections.
"The next elections seem to be a contest among the friendly parties of the incumbent government," he said.
The term of the current National Assembly will end in August this year and under the Constitution, fresh elections should be held within 90 days.
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