Parties involved: the Pakistani Military, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Party, Imran Khan, Shehbaz Sharif, the Pakistani Government, the Anti-Corruption Office.
On 09/05/2023 former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, was arrested by Pakistani paramilitary units over corruption charges while leaving court. Key figures from his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), were also arrested on 10/05/2023.
Khan was subsequently released on 11/05/2023 after Pakistan’s Supreme Court deemed his arrest as unlawful but there are speculations another arrest may be attempted.
Pakistan has been in a long-running political crisis since Khan was removed from power as Prime Minister in May 2022, which he labeled as a ‘coup’. This prompted months of protests against the Pakistani coalition government led by Shebhaz Sharif. Khan has criticized the Pakistani military as a corrupt and authoritarian force, and hailed his movement as the true expression of Pakistan’s democracy.
Polls have confirmed that Khan is the most popular politician in the country. Consequently, he has been demanding that early elections be held for months, but the government has vehemently resisted calling any election until October 2023.
On 03/11/2022, Khan survived an assassination attempt in Wazirabad, Punjab. This intensified his verbal attacks on the Pakistani government and the military.
Pakistani law enforcement agencies also attempted to arrest Khan in March 2023 but his supporters fought off the local police. Khan eventually turned himself in to deal with a separate court case.
Mass unrest has erupted across the country with protestors storming the Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi and looting the Punjab Army Corps commander’s house in Lahore on the night of 09/05/2023. Violent clashes between protesters and state authorities have resulted in 10 deaths and 1,400 arrests so far.
The military has been called in to restore order across the provinces of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the city of Islamabad, with the Prime Minister, Shebhaz Sharif, stating that demonstrators “will be given an exemplary punishment.”
The arrest of former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has caused an escalation in the political crisis facing Pakistan. Khan’s ongoing popularity has become a threat to the incumbent Pakistani government, thus prompting the Pakistani military to decisively intervene in order to remove him and consolidate the government’s power. However, the incumbent government is now confronting an existential crisis. The current unrest shows a public who has lost faith in its government and perceives it as a corrupt authoritarian regime, further, the court decision in favor of Khan further delegitimates the government’s tactics and forces them into a corner: either ignore the court and escalate the crisis, or back down and lose whatever remains of their legitimacy.
With the military having been deployed directly against the protestors, it is very likely that violence in the country will escalate. There is a possibility that there may be further loss of life due to the high chances that the military may fire onto protestors and engage in direct violent clashes on the streets. If the security situation deteriorates further, we may see the imposition of a state of emergency in Pakistan and even direct military rule. Civil-military relations are fraught with contention in Pakistan as the military holds substantial, if not dominant, political power in the decision-making process. The civilian government rests only on the legitimacy of the military, and so their domestic authority is wholly dependent on keeping the military content. Most worryingly from the perspective of Pakistani security, the military itself is losing legitimacy in the eyes of the Pakistani people with their arrest of Khan. With how integrated the military is to the conception of Pakistani statehood, and how overwhelmingly dominant it is to the country’s politics, it serves as a massive destabilizing point. With the freeing of Khan, it is unlikely the military will accept the decision amid their wider repression against the PTI.
At the moment, the ongoing political instability holds consequences for the response to the country’s crises and the security of the wider region. Pakistan is still reeling from the floods in October 2022, made worse by climate change, which submerged a third of the country underwater and pushed the country further to the brink of an economic crisis. There are fears that political instability in Pakistan could reverse the ceasefire on the border with India. India fired rockets into Pakistan in 2019 after an attack by Pakistan-based militants against the Indian army in Kashmir. For two nuclear-armed rival states, the lack of control could escalate political tensions between the two countries.
It is unlikely that the crisis will de-escalate without snap elections being called, however this constitutes a very delicate political situation. Whilst both sides agree that elections should be held in the near future, neither side trusts that the other will abide by fair democratic practices. Therefore, any election result would be highly contested because of the high chances of vote-rigging by the military, which calls into question the overall legitimacy of the Pakistani political system itself after its most recent democratization in 2008. The situation is setting Pakistani institutions against one another, with the political establishment and military against Khan and, seemingly, the judiciary, creating an unsustainable situation.
The Pakistani political crisis has a risk of escalation after the arrest, and reluctant release, of Imran Khan. The threat of the situation descending into large-scale violence and politicized violence, and even possible civil war, is extremely pronounced, with dim prospects for a peaceful de-escalation. The scale of the crisis is unprecedented in Pakistan, and on top of a debilitating economic crisis, the security situation is at risk of a breakdown.