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Pakistan: Imran Khan's political career hangs by a thread

Haroon Janjua in Islamabad
August 7, 2023

Former PM Imran Khan's chances of returning to power appear slim after he was convicted in a case involving the selling of state gifts.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan after appearing in a court in Lahore, Pakistan
Pakistan has been in a state of political turmoil since Imran Khan was ousted as prime minister in a vote of no confidence last yearImage: K. M. Chaudary/AP Photo/picture alliance

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is now an inmate at a high-security prison, after a court on Saturday convicted him of corruption and sentenced to three years in jail.  

The 70-year-old opposition politician, who remains widely popular in the South Asian nation, was found guilty of selling and lying about receiving state gifts worth more than 140 million Pakistani rupees ($635,000, €576,000), during his tenure as prime minister from 2018 to 2022.

Khan has denied the charges against him and stressed that he's a victim of political persecution. 

He is currently confined at Attock Jail, located around 60 kilometers (40 miles) west of the capital, Islamabad. The prison is notorious for its harsh conditions and its inmates include convicted militants.

Khan's future 'appears bleak'

The conviction threatens to end Khan's career in politics.  

Anyone convicted of a criminal offense is disqualified from contesting elections in Pakistan. This means Khan will likely be unable to run in a general election due by November.

The opposition leader is the most prominent political challenger to incumbent Pakistani PM Shehbaz Sharif.

What are Imran Khan's options?

"Imran Khan's political future appears bleak after his arrest and disqualification," Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told DW. 

"This is the final act of the establishment's project to remove him from the playing field before the next election, part of its usual playbook for dissenting political leaders."

Falling out with the powerful military

Pakistan has been in a state of political turmoil since Khan was ousted as prime minister in a vote of no confidence last year.

Khan has since been campaigning for a snap general election and organizing mass protests.

He has also emerged as a fierce critic of the country's powerful military, accusing it of plotting against him to keep him out of power.

The military denies the allegations.

Pakistan has seen its share of former prime ministers arrested over the years, with Khan being the seventh to have been jailed.

Even the current prime minister's brother, Nawaz Sharif, who also served as prime minister, was arrested several times on corruption allegations.

But Khan's chances of returning to the helm appear slim, said Zaigham Khan, a political commentator and a columnist based in Islamabad.

"Though it is hard to write him off, he may not be able to return to power in the next elections. He will need some sort of adjustment with the military to resume normal politics and that will take some time, if it happens at all," he told DW.

Raza Rumi, a political analyst, shares a similar view. "Imran Khan is being pushed out of politics through administrative and judicial means," he said.

Imran Khan's jail sentence: What are Pakistanis saying?

Legal woes and a massive clampdown

Since Khan's ouster, various government agencies have filed over 100 cases against him on charges ranging from contempt of court to terrorism and inciting violence.

And there seems to be no end in sight for the former prime minister's legal woes.

"At this point, it is difficult to imagine any relief for him from the courts in the coming months, or a political comeback before the next election," underlined Afzal.

In May, authorities detained Khan for three days in a different case in which he was convicted over the weekend. His arrest at the time triggered deadly violence, as tens of thousands of his supporters across the country took to the streets in protest, rampaged through cities and clashed with security forces.

Some of them even destroyed military and government property.

Authorities then launched a massive crackdown, arresting thousands of Khan's supporters and workers from his Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

This time around, Khan has called for peaceful protests.

But his calls have so far failed to rouse widespread support, possibly because of fears of another crackdown.   

"Khan's party PTI and supporters are under a draconian crackdown and they are scared to come out and risk their lives," said Osama Malik, a legal expert. 

Can PTI secure victory without Khan?

The PTI said on Saturday that they had already filed an appeal in the country's Supreme Court over the verdict in Khan's case.

If the top court doesn't overturn the lower court's ruling and the conviction stands, Khan will be barred by law from running for office or leading the PTI.

Imran Khan: 'Sooner or later they will put me in jail'

But his party can still contest the parliamentary elections.

"Khan's future remains uncertain but I think his party will be allowed to contest elections to ensure legitimacy for the process, though in circumstances that restrict their ability to win a large number of seats," said columnist Zaigham Khan. 

Polls indicate a strong election showing for the PTI, and Khan's imprisonment could further boost its standing.

"Imran Khan's popular constituency is strong and wide and will not fritter away," Rumi said.

"In a few years time, he might make a comeback provided he displays the political skills needed, especially to win the support of political forces as a beleaguered Khan battles the establishment."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Haroon Janjua
Haroon Janjua Journalist based in Islamabad, focusing on Pakistani politics and societyJanjuaHaroon