Islamabad, Pakistan – More than 80 senior members of Imran Khan’s political party have quit in recent weeks amid a nationwide crackdown in the aftermath of the violence that followed the ex-Pakistani prime minister’s arrest last month.
The public announcements largely followed a striking identical script: The party leader would typically call a news conference, often after being released from jail. They would begin their address by condemning the unrest before declaring their abiding commitment and love for Pakistan and its influential military. They would then conclude by saying they were quitting Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and taking a “break” from politics or, in some cases, announce a complete retirement.
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The flurry of defections hitting the PTI has come after the arrest of thousands of party supporters, including top leaders, in the dramatic events that surrounded the arrest of Khan on corruption charges, which he has denied.
The government has alleged that Khan’s supporters ran amok in various cities while he was in custody on May 9 and 10, damaging private and public properties, including military sites and monuments. Controversially, it has moved to try those accused of targeting military installations in military courts. The PTI has rejected allegations that its members were involved in vandalism.
And while party leaders have insisted publicly that the decision to quit was taken entirely on their own, without any external pressure, the circumstances of their announcements have raised questions about whether these were an act of preservation or the result of coercion.
Khan himself has argued that PTI leaders were being pressured into leaving the party, without saying who was behind it.
“People are not quitting, they are being forced to leave the party at gunpoint. Political parties cannot be dismantled through such tactics,” the cricketer-turned-politician said.
Political analyst Mehmal Sarfraz noted that the arrests happened in a politically charged atmosphere, as PTI leaders and supporters had warned that Khan’s arrest would be a “red line”.
“Khan says a reaction was bound to happen if he was arrested. Unfortunately for his party leaders, this ‘reaction’ also landed them in hot waters,” she told Al Jazeera. “Some may have left of their own accord following the crackdown on PTI, but many privately say they had to make a choice due to ‘pressure’.”
Pakistan’s military has historically played a dominant role in domestic politics, having ruled the country directly for more than 30 years. Its overt influence has often been blamed for forced defections and the switching of allegiances from one party to another in Pakistan’s tumultuous politics.
The latest political crisis began in April last year when Khan was removed from power in a no-confidence vote in parliament. Since then, the former prime minister has been demanding snap elections. Some observers suggest that the PTI has been in the crosshairs of the establishment since Khan’s removal – with the defections being the latest twist in the saga.
Hassan Javid, a professor of politics at the University of Fraser Valley in British Columbia, Canada, told Al Jazeera that in some cases involving certain leaders, “it is quite clear that the decision to ‘leave’ the PTI is one that has been made under duress.” He cited the departure of top Khan aide Shireen Mazari, who was detained several times since she was first arrested on May 12 over the protests that followed Khan’s arrest.
When she announced her decision to leave politics, Mazari said the ordeal had an impact on her health and her family.
Al Jazeera reached out to Mazari, as well as former PTI Vice President Fawad Chaudhry and Secretary General Asad Umar for comment on their decisions to quit the party, but the senior leaders did not answer.
But another former PTI member, who served as a lawmaker in the country’s National Assembly and recently announced his decision to quit the party, reluctantly agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.
The leader, who was not among those arrested, said it becomes difficult to resist pressure for too long when such a “massive state crackdown” is taking place.
“When there is an ailing family member alone at home, and police conducts raids at your house multiple times at night, you are left with one choice: To take care of the family member, or to stick with the party,” the politician said, without elaborating.
Others, however, were more forthcoming about their reasons to leave the PTI.
Raja Yasir Humayun, a former minister in the PTI-led regional government in Punjab province, who announced his decision to quit on May 30, said he had been considering leaving the party since last year.
Humayun added he had shared his concerns with the leadership about the party’s direction following Khan’s removal as prime minister.
“Since the time he was removed, Khan was surrounded by sycophants who did not allow any contrarian view around Khan. He also liked people who only presented hawkish views,” Humayun told Al Jazeera. “He is a fast bowler. He does his politics like a fast bowler as well, by always being aggressive.”
Humayun vehemently denied that he quit the PTI under any external pressure, saying it was the events of May 9 which convinced him to take a decision had been pondering for some time.
“I just don’t believe in this kind of violent politics. As a senior party official in Punjab, when you see such a situation, there is guilt and questions of why I am continuing if I don’t agree with party politics,” he added.
Malik Amin Aslam, a former adviser to Khan during his tenure as prime minister who announced his decision to quit on May 18, blamed the PTI for “the path it has taken”.
“The incidents of May 9 could not have happened without prior planning, and it was obvious how specific targets were picked. This is not why I joined the PTI for,” he told Al Jazeera.
While acknowledging his gratitude to Khan for providing a platform for work on climate change, Aslam said he had raised his reservations to the party leader multiple times in the last months on the aggressive stance adopted by the party, but he felt “sidelined”.
“When the leader of the party was in the jail and chaos was spreading outside, it was an opportunity for party leadership to fully condemn it and ask for intra-party investigation and disassociate from miscreants. However, this did not happen, which only reinforced my decision to quit,” Aslam said.
But Raoof Hassan, PTI’s central information secretary, said the defections were only going to help strengthen the party.
“Some of those who left the party are ideologically fully aligned with us, but they had no choice but to leave due to the incredible pressure they faced. Then, there are others who we call migratory birds, and for them, the decision to quit the party is in fact, an act of cleansing,” Hassan said.
“We feel that this will only benefit us. This gives us strength, and courage, and we can see that Imran Khan’s popularity is only increasing.”