Imran Khan’s arrest brings Pakistan closer to the edge

A supporter of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan clashes with police officers in Islamabad on May 10 (Photo: AP)
A supporter of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan clashes with police officers in Islamabad on May 10 (Photo: AP)

Summary

  • His supporters are willing to take their fight to the army

Imran Khan was expecting an uneventful day in court when he travelled from Lahore to Islamabad to appear before the Islamabad High Court on May 9th. It was not to be. Thirteen months after he was ousted as prime minister in a vote of no confidence, Mr Khan was bundled off the court’s premises and into an armoured car by paramilitary personnel and deposited in the custody of the country’s anti-corruption authorities. Rather than contest early elections, which he has been demanding for months, the mercurial populist may have to watch general elections scheduled for later this year unfold from a jail cell—provided they are held at all.

The stated reason for Mr Khan’s arrest is alleged corruption in connection with a land deal. (He denies the charges.) Yet the arrest appears to be related to his escalating quarrel with Pakistan’s armed forces. On May 6th Mr Khan claimed in a public rally that Major General Faisal Naseer, of the army’s intelligence arm, was plotting to murder him. Mr Khan had earlier blamed Shehbaz Sharif, who replaced him as prime minister, and other senior government and intelligence officials for a failed attempt on his life in November. He was shot in the leg.

In a rare public statement, the army’s public-relations arm called Mr Khan’s latest allegations “extremely unfortunate, deplorable and unacceptable" and threatened to take legal action. That did not stop Mr Khan from repeating them in a video recorded en route to the court in Islamabad. He was arrested shortly afterwards.

The arrest is the latest development in a political and constitutional crisis that has dragged on for months. Mr Khan has never accepted the legitimacy of his removal from the premiership a year ago. In a bid to force the government to hold early national elections, in January his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), brought about the dissolution of two provincial assemblies it controlled, including that of the crucial state of Punjab. But Mr Sharif wants unified polls in all four provinces and the centre in October, after parliament completes its term. The crisis turned constitutional when the Supreme Court ordered elections in Punjab on May 14th as demanded by Mr Khan, an order that the central government and parliament have rejected.

Mr Sharif and his government appear keen to buy time to improve the economy before elections are held. Annual inflation hit a record rate of 36.4% in April. Food-price inflation is running at 48.1%. GDP growth is projected to be a dismal 0.5% this year. With an estimated $77.5bn in loan repayments due by June 2026, and no sign that the IMF will soon agree to resume a $6.5bn lending programme, Pakistan remains in danger of defaulting despite bilateral support from China. On a visit to Islamabad over the weekend China’s foreign minister called on the country to sort out its chaotic politics and focus on improving the economy.

The more immediate risk is a breakdown of law and order. Small protests have already turned violent. Most dangerously, and unusually in Pakistan’s political history, protests have been directed at military sites. In Lahore, the usually heavily fortified residence of the city’s top military commander was breached by stick-wielding protesters, who smashed windows, set furniture alight and made off with household objects. One protester was seen cradling a peacock. “I took it from the corps commander’s house. It is the people’s money. What they stole, we are taking back," the masked protester said. Protesters could also be seen breaching the main gate of the army’s headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

In Pakistan, where the army is both feared and respected, the images on social media of protests against it are an unusual and dramatic sight. The government may be trying to prevent people from seeing them. At the time of publication, Pakistanis across the country were reporting outages of social media, internet and mobile-phone networks.

There is nothing new about a political leader falling out of favour with Pakistan’s army. What is new is the willingness of Mr Khan and his supporters to take the fight to the army. Mr Sharif and his government may fancy their odds of staying in power as Mr Khan skirmishes with the army. But Pakistan could be closer to the edge than they realise.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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