For a man staring down the barrel of a 10-year jail sentence, Imran Khan was oddly nonchalant in court last Tuesday. As his representatives argued passionately for a fair hearing, Pakistan’s ex-Prime Minister retrieved his eyeglasses, unfolded a newspaper, and did his utmost to ignore the surrounding commotion.
“At one point he looks up and says, ‘Oh, I don’t need to listen to this, it’s a fixed match, I know what the result is going to be,’” Khan’s sister, Aleema, tells TIME. “‘So why are all of you wasting your time?’”
It’s not a difficult conclusion to draw. Khan’s trial for allegedly leaking state secrets was conducted in camera inside a makeshift courtroom within a jail complex, with public and media banned. Khan’s own defense team were blocked from taking part, with the judge appointing two state-employed colleagues of the prosecution to represent the former national cricket captain instead. “When they gave the sentence, he said, ‘Oh, it’s only 10 years? I thought it would be 15,’” says Aleema. “So he’s laughing through the whole thing.”
The case heard one of more than 180 separate charges Khan, 71, currently faces and that have rendered a return to power nigh impossible for Pakistan’s most popular politician. He was back in court on Thursday on separate corruption charges related to the transfer of land for a charitable university he founded. On Saturday, he was sentenced to an additional seven years for having an “un-Islamic marriage.” “It’s becoming such a joke,” says Aleema.
But few in Pakistan are laughing as the nuclear-armed nation of 240 million stumbles towards general elections on Feb. 8. The legal onslaught on Khan dovetails with a broader purge of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, which has seen thousands of workers arrested, dozens of its leaders quit under duress, its famed cricket-bat logo banned, and constituency boundary lines redrawn to allegedly benefit its opponents. Khan’s name has been scrubbed from mainstream media and his own nomination papers rejected. “Of course, there is no level playing field and no way this election can be seen as ‘free and fair,’” says Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
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The obvious question is why a U.S. whose President has called democracy promotion overseas “the defining challenge of our time” has not taken a stronger stance to condemn such shenanigans. When asked at a press briefing Wednesday about attempts to muzzle the PTI, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller cut the question short, saying he couldn’t comment on the specific report because “I haven’t seen it,” before issuing the bromide “we want to see free and fair elections take place in Pakistan.”
Pakistan is, after all, a U.S. treaty ally (albeit one whose interests have not always aligned on security matters, to put it mildly.) America remains its top export destination and a key source of aid, thus retaining significant influence. A power vacuum and popular unrest serves nobody’s interests at a time when the U.S. is desperately trying to stop Israel’s war against Hamas from spilling into a broader regional conflict.
In truth, American reticence is both personality-driven and structural. Khan retained an oddly chummy relationship with the overtly Islamophobic Donald Trump, but he proved no friend to Joe Biden, fuming over the President’s failure to call him following his 2020 election victory and ranting about a U.S.-sponsored plot to oust him. (The case regarding leaking state secrets relates to allegations Khan released a confidential diplomatic cypher that he tenuously claims proves Washington pulled the strings of his ouster in an April 2022 no-confidence vote.)
American engagement in Pakistan boils down to wanting the South Asian nation to keep a lid on Islamic terrorism and stabilize relations with its historic nemesis India—and Khan’s record is poor on both. On his watch, deaths from terrorism soared dramatically while Pakistan also ranked as the world’s fifth most dangerous country for journalists. Regarding relations with New Delhi, Khan called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “racist” and “Hindu supremacist” and raised the prospect of war over disputed Kashmir. More egregiously, Khan shamelessly cozied up to both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
But the bigger issue for the U.S. is structural. Ultimately, it doesn’t much matter who holds political office in Pakistan because true power lies with its military, which has ruled the nation for over half its history and today acts as kingmaker. As one former top U.S. diplomat in Islamabad tells TIME: “When we had a [crisis], we didn’t call the prime minister—we called the Chief of Army Staff.”
General Asim Munir occupies that rarified post today, and it is he who has orchestrated Khan’s downfall after the two fell out spectacularly over military appointments and other bugbears—not least the ransacking of military properties by PTI supporters on May 9. It was also Munir’s decision to bring back three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from exile, quash his corruption conviction, repeal his lifetime ban from politics, and pave the way for a historic fourth stint in power. But as no Pakistani Prime Minister has ever completed a full term, few are betting on Shariff staying around long. Relations with Pakistan’s top brass take precedence. Tellingly, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted Munir in Washington in December.
“Given that Nawaz’s three terms in power ended with a fall out with the military, we can expect the same will happen this time around,” says Madiha Afzal, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution.
In the near term, however, from the U.S. perspective Sharif is a safe, predictable pair of hands who won’t rock the boat with India. “The State Department seems to be quite comfortable with Nawaz Sharif,” says Tariq Amin-Khan, a politics professor at Toronto Metropolitan University. But Sharif’s record on the economy is poor and reputation for graft “really quite legendary,” adds Amin-Khan. Since the turn of the millennium, per capita GDP in Pakistan has risen by an average of just 1% annually. In 2000, the average Pakistani was some 50% richer than his Indian counterpart; today, they are 25% poorer. Headline inflation rose to 29.7% year-over-year in December owing to tax hikes and a sharp fall in the currency.
“Having been prime minister for more time than anyone else since 1990, [Sharif] must take a fair share of blame for Pakistan’s poor economic performance over this period,” writes Gareth Leather, senior Asia economist for Capital Economics, in a briefing note. Despite his spotty diplomatic and security record, growth under Khan averaged at 6% for his last two years in office, despite headwinds such as the pandemic.
The risk is that a spiraling economy overseen by a government that lacks broad popular support would set the stage for significant social unrest—chances of which would be amplified by interference with the actual voting process. The PTI is refusing to give up and has managed to register candidates for the vast majority of constituencies. With the PTI logo banned, the party has set up an online portal to show supporters which officially independent candidate has its backing. “Give me a free and fair election and I think we will run away with three-quarters [of seats] if not more,” says Raoof Hasan, PTI’s principal spokesman and a former special assistant to Khan.
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Various opinion polls put Khan’s popularity at around 60% to 80% and the threat of a strong showing from his supporters may prompt the military to take more decisive action to hobble them. “The election as it is set up is already not free nor fair,” says Afzal. “The only question, in my view, is if there is overt rigging on election day.”
Street violence and any security response would, above all, make it more difficult to secure another IMF bailout—one deemed essential to avoid default and potential economic collapse. “My greatest fear is that this election is going to be called out for being a sham,” says Anita Weiss, a professor of international studies at the University of Oregon. “And there will be riots all over Pakistan that it can barely endure because of the severe economic crisis.”
As such, the Biden Administration may yet regret not taking a stronger stance to protect the democratic values it claims to hold so dear. “It would likely not have changed the overall direction of what’s happening,” says Afzal. “[But] Washington voicing concern would have given Pakistan’s military establishment pause, and perhaps softened the extent of the crackdown.”