Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has continued his dominant electoral streak after being removed from office some six months ago.
With eight National Assembly seats up for grabs in Sunday’s by-elections – three each in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces and two in Karachi city – the 70-year-old leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) contested seven and won six. Candidates of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), part of the ruling alliance, won the other two seats.
According to Pakistani laws, a candidate can run for multiple seats. However, if they win more than one, they have to choose one and give up the rest.
The seats Pakistanis voted for on Sunday were vacated when PTI MPs resigned en masse after Khan and his government were removed through a parliamentary vote of no confidence in April.
Since then, Khan has alleged he was the victim of a “foreign conspiracy”, pointing the finger of blame at the United States, charges Washington has denied.
Khan has also alluded, on numerous occasions, to the role of Pakistan’s military establishment in his downfall. The army is considered Pakistan’s primary powerbroker and has ruled the nation of 220 million for more than half of its 75 years of existence.
The military in the past has had to fend off allegations that it was the primary architect of Khan’s rise to power in 2018.
Since his removal, Khan has been holding rallies against the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), the ruling alliance that replaced him, calling its leadership “corrupt” and “absconders”. He has also been demanding fresh elections at the earliest, which are otherwise scheduled for October 2023.
The PTI earlier swept provincial by-polls in Punjab in July, when it won 15 out of 20 seats.
While the former prime minister’s party will not take up any of the seats won on Sunday, as the PTI has decided in principle to not be part of the parliament, observers say these electoral victories demonstrate his popularity across the country.
Senior PTI leader, Senator Faisal Javed Khan, said people voted for a new election, calling it an “election within an election”.
“People of Pakistan knew that Imran Khan is not going back to Parliament, yet they voted for him. It shows that they have decided that the country needs fresh election, which is the only way forward,” he told Al Jazeera.
Fawad Chaudhry, a former member of parliament and senior PTI leader, added that the result proved that people have shown their full support for Khan’s narrative.
“These elections were about two objectives: one, Pakistan should be a sovereign state which must not be dictated by any other country, and two, people’s wish to hold early election. This was a referendum for new polls,” Chaudhry told Al Jazeera.
The incumbent government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, however, has steadfastly refused to hold early elections and turned down all demands for it.
“The ball is in their court,” said Senator Khan, adding that the PTI was planning to intensify calls for polls. “If the government does not hold election, we are going to launch a long march by the end of this month and by then, it will be too late for them.”
During a news conference on Monday, Khan said: “I am giving them time just for the sake of the country.
“I am saying this again, they still have time to announce elections, but if they don’t, I will begin my march and my preparations are almost complete.”
The political upheaval in Pakistan comes at a time when the country is grappling with major economic challenges, including declining foreign exchange reserves, as well as the aftermath of unprecedented floods which killed more than 1,700 people and affected some 33 million people. The government estimates the cost of the damage from flooding to be between $30bn and $40bn.
However, the results of the by-elections were widely expected and did not have much of an effect on the markets.
Lahore-based political analyst Benazir Shah noted that Khan has been in election mode and on the campaign trail for several months now.
“At the moment, the PTI seems to be the only national political party in the country which has candidates to field in most of the provinces,” Shah told Al Jazeera.
Highlighting the victory in Punjab, the country’s most populous and considered the bastion of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), Shah said the results on Sunday and in July suggested that the PTI would go in as favourites in the next general elections, whenever they are held.
“Imran Khan has been insisting that he was popular and yet removed from power by his rivals in collaboration with the military. The recent string of election wins will further embolden Khan and it could draw back electable politicians back to him,” she said./ AL JAZEERA