Predicting the future is a fool’s errand, particularly in a country like Pakistan where the absurdity and opacity of everyday politics often defies conventional logic. In many respects, it might be fair to say that anything could happen; the asymmetrical information available to political actors, commentators, and citizens, and the simple impossibility of credibly determining who might have said or planned what with whom, makes it difficult to accurately guess at the motivations and expectations of those involved in the political upheavals of our time. Add to this the inherent complexity of human behaviour and interaction, as well as the potential for unknown variables to further muddy the waters, and you end up with a situation in which attempts to determine what might happen are effectively meaningless. After all, in newspapers and media outlets across the country, including this one, expert after expert has repeatedly, and sagely, anticipated the collapse of the government, the holding of mid-term elections, the inevitability of violent confrontation, the intervention of the military, the formation and dissolution of alliances, the ‘awakening’ of the people, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum and ad nauseam. That these predictions have failed to materialize has done little to deter the unending stream of commentary. There is also little evidence to suggest that there has been much of an attempt at introspection or reflection, with many observers continuing to ignore the reasons why reality continues to inconveniently diverge from their imagined narratives.

Yet, despite all of this, there is every reason to believe that at the PTI’s ‘decisive’ rally today, we will hear more of the same rhetoric that has echoed across Pakistan these past four months. The government will be castigated, its ministers and functionaries lambasted. The Sharifs and their allies, within their party and inside parliament, will be accused of corruption and incompetence, and the legitimacy of their mandate will be vociferously questioned. Imran Khan will speak of rights and justice, and will undoubtedly make liberal use of cricketing metaphors to describe the challenge he poses to the established order. Sheets of paper bearing ‘proof’ of misconduct will be waved around, fingers will be stabbed in the air, and a string of speakers will gesticulate wildly as they throatily denounce the PML-N. The ‘youth’, an undifferentiated mass of approximately 100 million people, will support the PTI’s quest for Azadi without exception, ably guided by the experience and wisdom of seasoned campaigners like Sheikh Rashid, men of unimpeachable integrity who want nothing more than to the serve the public. Fiery speeches will be interrupted by musical interludes and amidst all the shouting, chanting, and dancing, Naya Pakistan will emerge like a phoenix, rising from the ashes of the Old.

The depressing familiarity of this script should not detract from the possibility that things might turn out differently this time. An orchestrated or coincidental act of violence could turn things very ugly very quickly with truly unforeseen consequences. The charged sentiments of Imran Khan’s oration might prompt millions to spontaneously pour into the streets, clamoring for change. An uncharacteristic display of political sagacity and maturity by all the involved parties could bring this period of contestation to a swift and peaceful end. At the same time, it would not be beyond the realm of reason to suggest that shadowy external actors and intelligence agencies, fuelled by a burning hatred for Pakistan, might use the rally to sow further discord and discontent in the country. It might also be the tipping point that finally leads the military establishment to call an end to this political charade. Even more things are possible; the earth could, for example, experience a sudden and complete Total Existence Failure in which each and all of its constituent atoms and molecules spontaneously cease to exist. The probability of this happening is infinitesimally low but the fact that it is highly, highly improbable does not mean it is impossible.

Faced with a situation in which we feel compelled to speculate on events whose outcomes are ultimately indeterminate, the best thing that can be done is to rely on past experience, using theory and empirical evidence to advance tentative hypotheses about what might happen, and to distinguish between what is or is not plausible. Given what we know of the PML-N, for example, it would be reasonable to assume that little is going to change; it and its government will continue to display the incompetence that has characterized their tenure thus far. The structural factors that shape the party, such as its reliance on entrenched elites for political support, its use of patron-client politics, and its demonstrated lack of capacity to govern, will continue to inform its politics, delivering more of what we have witnessed over the past two years. The PML-N was, and remains, a right-wing party with little interest in, or commitment to, any kind of change that challenges the status quo.

The same is true of the PTI. Imran Khan’s political odyssey since 2011 has been both quixotical and paradoxical. The word tsunami, used by the PTI as a metaphor for its political agenda, conjures up images of a powerful and irresistible force, but also invokes notions of cataclysmic destruction without purpose or direction. The party speaks of reform and transformation, yet does so while entertaining the ambitions and aspirations of ghosts from the past, specters who speak of revolution but whose own records in power demonstrate how little they understand that term. The idealism of many in the PTI’s rank and file, well-meaning men and women disaffected by the status quo and hungry for change, is tempered by the calculated opportunism of its leadership and the political mercenaries who have flocked to its banner. The party claims to give voice to the marginalized and dispossessed, yet continues to unquestioningly champion the dubious virtues of neo-liberal capitalism and old-fashioned conservatism, the twin pillars upon which the oppressive, exploitative edifice of contemporary Pakistan rests. Imran Khan promises the sky but lacks the groundwork for delivering on his pledges, with his increasingly strident exhortations resembling a bricolage of expedient tropes rather than the products of a coherent ideological position.

Regardless of who emerges as the ‘victor’ once the dust settles, the PTI and PML-N, as well as other mainstream parties, will remain prisoners of their own shortcomings. As Marx once said, men make their own history but seldom do so in circumstances of their own choosing. Regardless of what they might say, the actions of these parties and their leaders will ultimately be determined by their extant institutional configurations and patterns of behaviour. It is unlikely that parties wedded to industrialists and landlords, as the mainstream parties are, would be willing or able to pursue a platform of economic justice, just as it is unlikely that parties comprised of traditional politicians will pose much challenge to the country’s entrenched networks of nepotism and rent-seeking. Similarly, parties that refuse to even question the military’s role in Pakistan’s politics can hardly be expected to fight for democracy, just as those that fail to critically discuss the role of religion in the country’s politics are unlikely to stand up for the rights of minorities. While it certainly is the case that the simple logic of democratic contestation might ensure that the current tussle between the PTI and the PML-N gives rise to incremental reform in some areas such as electoral law, hysterical anticipation of revolutionary change is, in this case, completely unwarranted. The November 30th rally may be decisive, but what exactly will it decide?

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS. He can be contacted at