Pakistan braces for a political tsunamiImran Khan’s arrest may boomerang if the situation is not handled patiently and without violence.
The arrest of Imran Khan—former prime minister of Pakistan and chief of Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI)—in the Al-Qadir Trust corruption case under the National Accountability Bureau ordinance of 1999 has brought the country to a boil with the internet down and curfew slapped in several provinces. The government had been trying unsuccessfully to arrest the PTI chief for more than a month. His arrest at this moment may boomerang politically if the situation is not handled patiently and without the use of violence.
Since the ouster last year in a no-confidence motion, Khan has sold the narrative that his displacement was due to an international conspiracy. This claim has gained traction with his supporters in spite of his losing the no-confidence vote with 174 members voting against him. He quickly blamed the United States and the Pakistani army for his downfall, and accused them of installing an “imported” puppet government. He said he was being punished for following an independent foreign policy as he decided to visit Russia. He completely exploited the anti-American sentiments and the prevailing sentiment against army interference in politics. However, his tactics are not new. He has championed several issues in the past that have added to his mercurial rise and delivered the first victory to the PTI when it formed the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2013. He emerged as the main opposer of the US War on Terror, which was unpopular in Pakistan. He was against military action in the tribal areas and supported the Taliban, earning him the title of “Taliban Khan”.
Parting of the ways
Khan, who is known for his U-turns in February 2023 in his interview with the Voice of America English, said that it was “super king” General Bajwa who was responsible for his ouster and not the US as he was eager to patch up his ties with it. Bajwa and Khan parted ways over Faiz Hameed. In April, he said that Bajwa was pressuring him to develop friendly ties with India and cited this as one of the reasons for the deterioration in their relations. Not to be held back, the army accused Imran of asking for favours from it.
Notwithstanding his changing statements, it is apparent that he has managed to strengthen his position after losing the no-confidence motion. It was quite possible that he would have lost the election had he continued in office. The economy was in a severe crisis, foreign currency deposits were depleted, inflation was at an all-time high and there was debt distress. Yet, riding on nationalist sentiments, Khan did not want to approach the International Monetary Fund to reinstate the bailout package suspended due to his populist measures. His promises of tabdeeli nosedived as economic crises unfolded. Though many saw him responsible for Pakistan’s economic situation, political events unfolded in such a manner that he was able to turn the table against his opponents.
The army was divided over Khan’s ouster; he had successfully divided the judiciary. His party men holding the office of the president and governor of Punjab created problems for the Shahbaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government. The president refused to administer the oath of office to Sharif on the grounds of his indispensability. Finally, Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani administered the oath of office. As the drama settled down in Islamabad, it unfolded in Punjab. Finally, the PTI decided that the provincial governments led by the party would resign in his bid to force an election on the government. Understandably, Sharif’s government is reluctant to hold an election now as his party may lose, given Khan’s popularity and how he has managed to shape the narrative of his ouster. Moreover, a deep economic crisis has added to the government’s woes as it has no choice but to implement the IMF’s conditionalities to qualify for a bailout.
Imran’s strength has been his street power constituting mainly the urban youth. His argument that his ouster was a conspiracy has struck a chord with the common people, mainly the youth who detest the army’s frequent political interference. This anger against the army was manifested following Imran’s arrest. There were protests across the country with violence and vandalism reported. The PTI has tried to distance itself from these violent incidences where supporters are seen holding party flags. The irony is that Imran himself was an army protégé. Without its support, it would have been difficult for him to win the election. Both then and now, the common thread that binds his narrative is that he has been treated unfairly.
Eyes on Qureshi
The division within the judiciary over several cases pertaining to Khan reflects that Pakistan is undergoing a political churning. For example, Chief Justice Aamer Farooq, who questioned Khan’s arrest, has not concurred by validating it. In the past few days, there has been a war of words between the Inter-Services Public Relations of the Pakistan Army and Khan as he has accused one of the officers of making an assassination attempt against him. The army’s media wing has denied the accusation, but the interesting point is that he has convinced his supporters that the army is against him. It serves two purposes—first, putting the army on the defensive; second, restricting the armed forces from supporting the current Sharif regime. It also needs to be underlined that no politician in the past has dragged the military into everyday politics as Khan has done.
After his arrest, there have been questions about who will emerge as the party’s new leader who can carry forward his street-level fighting with similar charisma and appeal. There is speculation that this arrest was to make him ineligible to contest the next election. Second-rung leaders within the party do not have the political drive that Imran has demonstrated. There is some speculation that Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who is close to the military, may lead from the front. The questions that arise are: In Imran’s absence, will he be able to keep the “tsunami” blowing? Will he make a compromise with the armed forces?