Imran Khan and the Pakistan military’s showdown

May 31, 2023
Pakistani soldier with national waving flag on background - Pakistan Military theme.

The arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan on May 9th sent shockwaves throughout Pakistan, igniting widespread and violent protests across the nation.

The unprecedented backlash against the military establishment unfolded in a series of alarming images that flooded the internet. Imran’s supporters from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party stormed the General Headquarters, wreaking havoc at the Lahore Corps Commander’s residence, and defacing various military monuments and properties nationwide. This starkly contrasted with the peaceful protests of Mr. Khan and his party in the past, despite enduring significant political harassment for over a year. In response, the state crackdown, particularly by the incensed military establishment, was equally brutal. Internet services were suspended, causing widespread blackouts and resulting in billions of rupees in losses for telecommunications and other industries. Restrictions on public gatherings were imposed, and eventually, the military was deployed in Islamabad, Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to restore order.

Although many conspiracy theories are afloat, suggesting that the destruction of national property, such as the Lahore Corps Commander’s residence, was orchestrated by a collusion between the establishment and the government to discredit the PTI, proving such claims is challenging amidst the incessant propaganda from both sides. Even if these theories hold some truth, there is no doubt that PTI members themselves were directly involved in the riots, as testified by arrested party members. Regardless of the circumstances, the events of that day marked a dark moment for Pakistan, and perhaps everyone bears some responsibility for this tragic turn of events. While Imran Khan was subsequently released by the Islamabad High Court, the distressing events of May 9th have emboldened the heavy-handedness of both the establishment and the incumbent Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government.

What precipitated the May 9th riots?

Following Imran Khan’s removal from the Prime Minister’s office on April 10th, 2022, tensions between the PTI and the establishment-PDM alliance escalated. This incident was another chapter in Pakistan’s volatile civil-military relations, albeit an extreme one. Imran Khan accused the former army chief, Bajwa, of engineering his ousting by leveraging the old guard of Pakistani politics, who had joined forces to form the PDM along with other parties. Many individual parties within the PDM are notorious for their dynastic politics and rampant corruption. Imran Khan’s narrative that the establishment was supporting an alleged criminal enterprise like the PDM struck a chord with many Pakistanis, leading to a surge in support.

However, the tide turned as several PTI leaders, including Shahbaz Gill, and pro-PTI journalists like Imran Riaz, faced antagonism, arrests, and even torture. Police conducted raids on the homes of PTI members without warrants, disregarding the fundamental right to privacy. Leaked audio recordings, of dubious authenticity, constantly tarnished the reputation of local PTI leaders, including Mr. Khan, further undermining the party. International human rights organisations took note as hundreds of cases were filed against Imran Khan. On November 3rd, 2022, an assassination attempt was made on his life, intensifying public anger against the establishment and fuelling Imran Khan’s call for fresh elections.

In this precarious political climate coupled with Pakistan’s inflation curse the May 9th protests and riots were perhaps inevitable, with the most popular political party at odds with the seemingly omnipotent military establishment.

A Victory for the Establishment?

The May 9th riots have not only allowed the military and political elites to bring those responsible to justice but have also facilitated their retribution against other PTI members and leaders who were not involved. Several PTI leaders have resigned from the party in response to the reprehensible acts of May 9th. While some claim these resignations are coerced, the resignees deny such allegations. The party has been significantly weakened, with over 7,000 PTI members arrested and counting.

However, the most significant consequence is the imminent re-arrest of Imran Khan. Although his previous arrest was deemed unlawful due to its occurrence on court premises, he remains susceptible to arrest in one of the many cases filed against him.

Another clash on the horizon

While voices of reason plead for dialogue between the PTI and the PDM-establishment alliance in the interest of the nation, it seems that the current army chief is uninterested in any form of negotiation. Internal rumours suggest that he harbours disdain for Imran Khan and is working towards reshaping the country’s political landscape without him. This, however, presents a formidable challenge due to Imran Khan’s unwavering national and international (including the Pakistani diaspora) support. Public frustration against the establishment and PDM continues to escalate due to their oppressive tactics, mishandling of the economy, Pakistan’s energy crisis and the resurgence of the Tehreek-Taliban Pakistan terrorist group. Consequently, the obstinacy of the establishment, juxtaposed with the animosity of PTI supporters, creates a highly volatile situation, akin to a powder keg waiting for a spark to ignite.

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