Last shot at civilian supremacy for a generation – 19 Mar 2023

Imran Khan has electrified and educated the masses on the power of their vote

The pitched battles outside Zaman Park this week were a physical climax of a 12-month battle of nerves that could be our last shot at civilian supremacy for a generation. We are within striking distance of a new social contract for Pakistan.

Over the last 12 months, Imran Khan has electrified and educated the masses on the power of their vote to dilute the strength of unelected forces, which exert undue influence within the corridors of power. He builds on similar messaging delivered by Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz for three years before they cut a deal behind the scenes to come back into power. The difference is that Imran Khan has been able to mobilise a larger number of people, including Gen Z, urban elite and traditionally pro-establishment constituencies on his message. More importantly, Imran Khan and his supporters have shown extraordinary courage in the face of brutal state repression.

It started with the murder of Arshad Sharif, the jailing and torturing of senior PTI party leadership, leaking of private videos, an assassination attempt on Imran Khan himself, media censorship, the killing a party worker and treating political activists with tear gas and rubber bullets. This is a classic behaviour to get any civilian leader in Pakistan to back down and fall in line. But Khan refuses to fall in line. He keeps making a singular demand to hold elections on time. And elections might be the only missile that can pierce through the fortress of our current status quo power dynamics.

Critics of Imran Khan argue that he’s a flawed vessel to drive civilian supremacy and that he’s more interested in power than principles. They base their argument on the premise that the boys helped his rise to power and that he’ll fall in line once he’s back in power again ala PDM. Let’s unpack these arguments one by one. If you’re looking for a virgin political player with a shot at sweeping elections who’s never danced with the boys, good luck finding one in Pakistan. If you think Imran Khan will cut a deal once he’s back in power, you don’t realise the intensity of emotions running through PTI voters who will serve as the ultimate check on any impulse to forgive and forget. Unlike PDM leaders who went to jail without putting up a fight, it is PTI’s workers who are paying with their blood and sweat in this pitched battle for civilian supremacy.

PDM’s strategy to topple the PTI government was focused on a backchannel deal. PTI’s strategy is dramatically different. They’re calling for actual elections to overcome a political impasse. Also, what other pathways are there to establishing civilian supremacy for our generation? Could a left-wing party emerge? Yes, it could but it would take them at least 20 years to establish the kind of mass, popular support PTI enjoys right now to deal with the boys. For the next 5 years, it’s either the PTI or the PDM. One option is that the PTI and PDM could come together to put the boys back in their place but with the intense polarisation we’re currently experiencing, that looks highly unlikely. This brings us to the most plausible option to advance civilian supremacy at the moment, which is Imran Khan and the PTI.

Even if Imran Khan fails or you believe he’s a flawed vessel, the shots he’s taking today need to be supported by anyone who supports civilian supremacy. We need to present a united front. Given Imran Khan’s public clarity on the power of the people’s vote to contain unelected forces, there’s only one pathway forward: to translate his wave of popularity into a landslide electoral win. And once he wins, to make the people’s mandate a source of strength and stubbornness on civilian supremacy. This is a once in a generation opportunity to re-write Pakistan’s social contract and it’s precisely why the state is hell bent on quashing it so violently.

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