Democracy, diktats, and detention: Imran Khan gets cancelled

F.M. Shakil, The Cradle, August 14, 2023 —

Imran Khan’s transformation from prime minister to prisoner stands as a stark cautionary tale for global leaders who challenge the ‘rules-based international order.’

In a striking judicial development on 5 August, a court in Islamabad handed down a significant verdict against former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. The court found him guilty of a serious lapse in his responsibilities, specifically his failure to report the sale of state gifts on his income tax and asset declaration forms.

Consequently, the popular politician and former cricket star was sentenced to three years in prison and, notably, was further disqualified from seeking public office for a minimum period of five years.

In a swift sequence of events, following the court’s decision, the Pakistan Election Commission promptly took action by effectively suspending Khan’s political ambitions until the year 2028.

The timing of this politically-motivated move was indeed impeccable, coinciding with the country’s preparations for the upcoming general election in the months ahead. With the conclusion of the current National Assembly’s term on 12 August, the new caretaker prime minister, a “little-known senator,” Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar has been announced, following an agreement between Khan’s successor Shehbaz Sharif and opposition leader Raja Riaz.

While the session court’s verdict in the Toshakhana state gifts case contained certain procedural flaws, potentially offering legal recourse for Khan, its ramifications have already cast a shadow over his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Consequently, his prospects of regaining authority within the forthcoming five-year interval appear to be increasingly diminished.

Khan’s downfall: Ego or US conspiracy?

Imran Khan, 70, the popular politician who governed the nuclear-armed South Asian state of approximately 240 million people for a notable span of three and a half years, experienced a political upheaval of considerable magnitude last year.

His tenure was brought to an abrupt and highly controversial end through a vote of no confidence lodged by the collective opposition in the lower house of parliament.

Censured for bearing the brunt of a faltering economy and the inability to fulfill his electoral pledges, Khan found himself deserted by his coalition allies – culminating in his political downfall – which many of his supporters believe was orchestrated by Washington and its Pakistani allies.

The events leading to Khan’s recent detention earlier this month were undoubtedly calculated to disrupt his electoral maneuvering, within a backdrop of corruption allegations.

This episode is merely the latest addition to a series of comparable incidents observed globally, wherein popular, charismatic leaders who strayed beyond the confines of the “rules-based international order” encountered legal ramifications.

Governments that embarked on independent foreign and domestic policy trajectories also faced precipitous declines, bearing the usual hallmarks of a foreign-backed conspiracy. The question lingers of whether these occurrences are a result of coincidental alignment or a well-orchestrated strategy to reprimand leaders who refuse to align with either democratic or “autocratic” forces.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a distinguished author, columnist, human rights advocate, and professor at the Forman Christian College in Lahore, provides an insightful perspective.

He tells The Cradle that, in the context of Khan’s incarceration, the narrative of a grand design guided by external influences is unsubstantiated: “Imran Khan was crazily in love with himself, and that self-centered trait brought him down,” he posits.

Hoodbhoy instead attributes Khan’s downfall to his pronounced self-centeredness and an inflated ego. Khan’s close alignment with the Pakistan army, based on shared ideologies of machoism, aggressive militarism, anti-Indian sentiment, Islamism, and disdain for feminism, resulted in his eventual undoing.

“For years, he and the army were singing from the same hymn sheet, and Khan pandered to their every desire without even batting an eye at their business interests and housing projects,” he explains, adding:

“Khan pictured himself as Erdogan, surrounded by his loyal followers who would turn a blind eye to any wrongdoings he committed. It was only after Khan put his foot down and called the shots on his choice of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief that the whole shebang started to fall apart at the seams. If he had managed to pull off getting Gen. Faiz Hameed installed as the Chief of Army Staff, it would have sealed the deal for him for the next ten years.”

Rules for thee, but not for me

However, a strongly contrasting viewpoint asserts that the rules-based order is the driving force behind the decline and agony of a substantial number of politicians across the Global South, who found themselves humiliated for adopting a more independent middle ground – Khan included.

Critics argue that the hereunto US-led global order conceals a more sinister reality, wherein a select group of powerful nations manipulate the system to advance their own opportunistic agendas.

The UN Security Council, for instance, has taken selective action against aggression by western powers. Sabur Ali Sayyid, one of Pakistan’s top columnists and editor of a news portal, tells The Cradle:

“This ‘pay-to-play system’ has been a real wild goose chase when it comes to Syria, Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. It is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, but it just does not work. The UN resolutions and rulings from associated organizations turned a blind eye to human rights violations in these regions and did not lift a finger to punish those responsible, let alone impose any sanctions on them.”

On the issue of Khan’s ousting from Pakistani politics, he adds: “Khan was pushing their buttons and making them bend over backward to put them in their place.” In Pakistan, Sayyid says, survival is very tough for anti-imperialist and anti-US activists: “When it comes to Pakistan, we make sure to nip such elements in the bud before they become a thorn in our side on the global stage.”

The Pakistani columnist highlights the inherent selectivity within the rules-based paradigm, likening it to a painstaking search for a needle in a haystack, fraught with deception. Sayyid underscores the western world’s tendency to condemn actions by Russia outside its borders, yet remain conspicuously silent on issues like Kashmir and developments across West Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. This selective engagement, he contends, illustrates the double standards at play.

Within a historical context, critics point out that the US and its western allies have frequently undermined democratic norms by orchestrating coups to topple legitimately elected governments around the globe. Instances like the CIA-led coup in Iran in 1953 and the destabilization of the Guatemalan government a year later underscore western disregard for democratic principles. And US involvement in numerous coups, such as those in Indonesia, South Vietnam, and Chile, further exemplify the west’s unchecked violation of international law.

Studies indicate that, since World War II, the US has interfered in elections and domestic politics in over 80 countries, including two dozen democracies. And while the west disparages Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, the US and the European Union kicked off this conflict in 2014 by inciting protests against the pro-Russian elected Ukrainian president before the end of his term.

Disruptive defiance 

Prior to his tribulations since April 2022, Khan had levied allegations of US-backed machinations aimed at his removal—an assertion stoutly refuted by both Islamabad and Washington. Khan’s subtle allusion to a certain “bigwig” nation that became perturbed following his February 2022 visit to Russia was telling. Amidst the backdrop of Russia-Ukraine tensions, reservations were loudly voiced across western media platforms regarding his two-day trip to Moscow – the first of any Pakistani head of state in more than two decades.

A growing list of world leaders – former US President Donald Trump among them – have been accused of undermining the post World War II US-led, rules-based liberal international order, and have subsequently faced retribution for their divergent viewpoints.

Trump’s alleged transgressions encompassed his critical stance on institutions predominantly managed by the US and his propensity to champion a global “anti-democratic” movement.

Popular leaders are not just targeted whilst in office; lawfare is often employed to eliminate any prospects for a political comeback.

Last year, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina was found guilty of fraudulent activities during her presidency spanning 2007 to 2015. The verdict culminated in a six-year prison sentence and a permanent ban on her involvement in public office. Kirchner’s reputation for advocating multipolarization and her measured stance on international crises such as Ukraine has been well documented.

Throughout Kirchner’s tenure, consistent communication between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev and herself was evident. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, Buenos Aires voiced opposition to economic and other forms of alignment with western-imposed sanctions.

Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, stands as another victim of the US-backed global order. In 2017, Lula was convicted on charges of money laundering and corruption, purportedly linked to his earlier presidency from 2003 to 2010.

A Brazilian court later overturned his conviction in 2021, allowing him to run for public office. He regained office after defeating Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in last year’s presidential election. Under Lula’s administration, Brazil sent a delegation to Venezuela, permitted Iranian warships to dock in Rio de Janeiro, and refused to deliver weapons to Ukraine.

According to experts, Lula is rekindling Brazil’s longstanding doctrine of non-alignment to shape a policy safeguarding national interests in an increasingly multipolar world—a stance that has stirred concern within the US and Europe. Moreover, Lula has articulated intentions to establish a coalition of nations, encompassing India, China, and Indonesia, tasked with facilitating peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.

As Pakistan moves forward, the void left by Imran Khan’s absence will undoubtedly impact the country’s political dynamics. In an era and region characterized by the waning influence of the US and the ascent of Eurasian integration, the ascent of a new interim prime minister and the impending general election will additionally contribute to shaping the nation’s future.

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