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Pakistan's Imran Khan problem 

Khan's release from custody is a victory for democracy, but the stakes in Pakistan's political crisis have reached dangerous levels
Supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan shout slogans as they block a road during a protest against the arrest of their leader in Hyderabad, on 9 May 2023 (AFP)

Authorities in Pakistan have spent the last three days throttling popular protests after a horde of paramilitary soldiers arrested former Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday morning. 

The Supreme Court ordered his release on Thursday after deeming his arrest “illegal”, but the anger shows no signs of abating.

Extraordinary scenes of violence have emerged across the country, with defiant crowds breaking into military properties and setting ablaze the homes of army personnel.

No matter whether you supported the arrest of the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party or not, the deep state, also known as the military establishment, is seeing its carefully cultivated myth corrode in the face of an angry population.

Corruption cases in Pakistan, such as the one Khan faces, only fly as far as a passing government can throw them.

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It’s an incredible situation, given that not so long ago the army was trusted by the public and viewed as the only institution that actually worked.

The irony is that before he was ousted from power, Khan had maintained that his government and the army were on the same page. His administration was pejoratively referred to as a “hybrid regime”, a tongue-in-cheek jibe to his government being partly run from the barracks. Arrests of political dissidents and curbs on media freedoms during his term in office failed to dispel that image.

For so many of Khan’s voters, the army was previously viewed as a force separate from the corrupt political elite. But now, the army has unwittingly delivered a message that it is the corrupt political elite that Khan had promised to drain from the swamp of Pakistani politics. 

How did we get here? 

In a nutshell, Khan’s removal through a no-confidence motion last year ushered in an alliance of Pakistan’s old kleptocratic ruling parties which had previously failed miserably at governing. They inherited an economic time bomb from the PTI government that they have no idea how to disarm.

The Pakistan Democratic Movement, which emerged in 2020 as a bulwark against Khan, began pursuing the same revenge politics that Khan himself was guilty of during his tenure. 

Khan’s time in office and his political mandate had sought to eradicate Pakistan’s ruling political families, primarily the Bhuttos and the Sharifs, from the political landscape. 

None of this might have been a problem had he stayed within the lines and steered clear of clashing with the military. But Khan is not that type of leader. 

Imran Khan's arrest is a dark day for democracy
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His famous clash in 2021 with the former army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, over the transfer of the former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief, Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, kicked off the acrimonious relationship.

Khan has since publicly blamed the establishment (the military and the ISI) for trying to get rid of him. This past weekend, he accused Major General Faisal Naseer of the ISI by name, alleging he was behind two attempts to kill him. 

This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and within a few days, the former prime minister was in the custody of the anti-corruption National Accountability Bureau – an autonomous body consistently accused of being used as a weapon by sitting governments against their opposition.

The arrest was met with near-silence globally, with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak calling it an “internal matter”.

Contacted for comment, the US State Department sent Middle East Eye a boilerplate statement saying it was aware of the arrest and didn’t pick political sides.

Khan has failed to cultivate strong relationships with several global powers, but regardless, the arrest of an opposition leader should have garnered greater concern from democracies that otherwise spare no opportunity to lecture the world about the rule of law. 

What does this mean for Pakistan? 

Pakistan is facing an acute economic crisis, and the political situation is only pushing the country further away from the road to recovery. 

Elections are the only way out, but the military and the government that should be ushering in elections are preoccupied with trying to stamp out the opposition candidate most likely to win. 

What Pakistan needs is reconciliation, but it’s naive to think that anything like that is on the horizon. 

Khan is not misguided in his belief that the country needs to move past the old corrupt ruling elite, but he was misguided in thinking he could do it through sheer political force and by weaponising institutions. The only path to Pakistan’s political evolution is through out-governing your opponents and letting them fade into political obscurity. 

No Pakistani leader has ever finished a full term in office because continuity leads to democratic stability, which strengthens civilian institutions and weakens the army’s role in politics. 

The Khan problem is now an intractable conflict, and the attempt to prosecute him is being seen as an attempt to persecute him

Time and again, politicians and the establishment have colluded to serve their interests, with the only real winner being the army and its ability to stymie democratic growth.

What does work in Khan’s favour this time around is that the army is deeply unpopular – potentially as unpopular as it’s ever been. 

Political economist Umair Javed recently told MEE that he “genuinely believes the Pakistani military has no staunch ally left in Pakistani society”, having managed to alienate every traditional political constituency in the country. 

And that is why Pakistan has an Imran Khan problem. Khan cultivated anti-army sentiment among what was perhaps the last remaining segment of society that backed them. The Khan problem is now an intractable conflict, and the attempt to prosecute him is being seen as an attempt to persecute him. 

It now boils down to this: Pakistan can only move forward through elections. The ruling coalition, along with the establishment, stands to be the biggest losers at the polls. 

Khan’s release is by no means the end of popular anger at the state, and he is still facing charges. The situation is dire, and a war of attrition is underway.

Images of Khan’s supporters attacking the army’s hallowed General Headquarters do not bode well. For a ruling coalition with elections on the horizon, it’s even worse.

In the war for public perception, the sitting government and the army have a serious Imran Khan problem. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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