Imran Khan, the ex-Prime Minister of Pakistan and the Chairman of the leading national political party in the last elections, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was arrested yesterday on charges of corruption. He denies all of the charges. This arrest has come on the back of political tensions that have been mounting for months. 
Looking back on the 2018 election
In the last national elections, the Imran Khan-led PTI emerged as the single largest national party. He took on the office of Prime Minister and made bold decisions that changed the strategic direction of Pakistan’s foreign policy.
This independent approach to running the country did not go down well with the military establishment and some Western powers, which have historically enjoyed subservience from political leadership of the country.
Events of April 2022 and “imported government”
In April last year, Khan was eventually ousted after four years in office, through a parliamentary vote of no confidence.
According to Khan, the vote was heavily manipulated with the use of coercion and bribery by local and international operators.
Since then, the PTI chair has been manoeuvring against his political adversaries and constantly demanding fresh elections in a bid to remove “imported government”: a term he coined for the government put in place after his removal. His popularity graph has consistently been seen to be travelling in one direction since his removal, upwards.
Dissolution of Punjab and KPK provincial governments
Earlier this year, in a seemingly self-defeating political step, the PTI dissolved its own provincial governments in the largest province of Pakistan, Punjab, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK).
This was arguably an attempt by Khan to capitalise on his rising popularity since the ouster, by forcing fresh elections in the two provincial assemblies within 90 days under the terms of the constitution. This was a bold move made by Khan to give his party a chance to gain a much larger majority in the key province of Punjab and his stronghold of KPK.
Under the constitution, caretaker governments were instituted for the interim period in the two provinces, but the selection of the cabinet members was heavily tainted with anti-PTI bias.
As with all matters of national importance in Pakistan, the military establishment is believed to have been behind the anti-PTI composition of the new set-up.
“Puppets of the establishment”
Fears of the interim set-up being mere puppets of the establishment came true when the interim cabinet in Punjab demonstrated its unwillingness to hold fresh elections within 90 days.
The Election Commission of Pakistan, the body that regulates and conducts elections in the country, also expressed its inability to hold elections is such a short timespan.
This decision of the Election Commission was blamed by Khan and his party on the military establishment, which is allegedly bent upon keeping Khan out of power.
In a dramatic step, the Supreme Court of Pakistan took suo moto action (a motion of its own volition without prompt from any other parties) against the decision by the Election Commission to not hold provincial elections within 90 days. A bench of three Supreme Court judges passed the judgment to uphold the constitution and enforce elections by 14th May 2023.
In response to the above judgment, the national cabinet, mainly composed of members of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) – a political alliance of more than a dozen political parties formed against the PTI – challenged the court by claiming that a lack of resources and the poor security situation would prevent the elections from taking place.
However, it is widely understood by political analysts and the public that the real reason for the PDM not holding elections is its fear of losing elections by a wide margin, given the PTI’s huge popularity.
Desperate executive aims fire at judiciary
In a retaliatory move, the cabinet went all-out against the Supreme Court, demanding an audit of court finances for the past decade, on top of raising questions about neutrality and integrity of the judges. The National Assembly also passed a bill to curtail suo moto powers of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
The broader legal ramifications of the cabinet’s refusal to comply with the court orders were still under review by the Supreme Court, when Khan’s arrest took place yesterday.
Becoming increasingly desperate himself, in a recent public message Khan named a senior army general as the main culprit behind the assassination attempts on him and the brutal murder of a famous journalist, Arshad Sharif. Some say that this proved to be the tipping point for the military’s patience with Khan, who has been vocally critical of the military’s political role in the country.
On Monday, the media wing of Pakistan’s military warned Khan against making what they called “baseless allegations” against its officers. The arrest was made yesterday (Tuesday) under a warrant in a case that accuses Khan of fraudulently acquiring a piece of land in the name of a trust controlled by him and his wife. The timing of this arrest and the fact that the arrest warrant was issued on 1 May, which was a public holiday, raises further doubts about the legitimacy of the same.
A cinematic arrest
In order to serve the arrest warrant, scores of paramilitary men stormed the court premises in Islamabad. In a video, Khan was seen being jostled into the police van by dozens of uniformed armed personnel.
The arrest of Imran Khan, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan. pic.twitter.com/2vElA4vPFP— The Spectator Index (@spectatorindex) May 9, 2023
Khan has denied all charges and dismissed them as being politically motivated. Moreover, he has already been bombarded with almost 140 cases of anti-state activities and terrorism since his removal from the office of Prime Minster in April 2022.
Khan and the PTI have dubbed all of these cases as fabricated tales coined to pressure him into getting in line with the wishes of antidemocratic forces in the country. Thus far, Khan has remained defiant.
Soon after his arrest, a pre-recorded video message started circulating on social media, in which Khan implored the people of Pakistan to take to the streets to protect their freedom and to defend their right to vote. Several other prominent PTI leaders also took to social media to encourage their followers to come out and protest.
Social media platforms suspended
There are videos circulating on social media that are indicative of widespread riots, destruction of state assets, and protests taking place across the country. Several injuries and at least one death have been reported by international media.
However, mainstream media, which is largely controlled by the establishment, is not airing news of growing civil unrest against Khan’s arrest. To control rallies and protests, social media services including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have been suspended in Pakistan.
The anger felt by many protesters seems to be channelled towards the country’s military, which is blamed by Khan for his removal. Several military installations and buildings have been attacked by protesters. Worryingly, informal reports circulating on social media indicate that police and the military have used live rounds of ammunition against such demonstrators. Several protesters, PTI political activists, and PTI leaders have been apprehended.
“…staring down the barrel of a default”
All this chaos and anarchy on the streets is happening in the backdrop of mounting economic pressure. It is no exaggeration to say that Pakistan is staring down the barrel of a default on its national and international obligations.
According to a Twitter post by Pakistan’s former tax chief, Shabbar Zaidi (who served as the 26th Chairman of the Federal Board of Revenue), it is the first time in the history of the country that a government has not been able to collect enough taxes to pay even the interest on its local obligations.
Moreover, the dialogue with the IMF (International Monetary Fund) to secure additional funding in order to meet international debt obligations has so far not been fruitful. The Fund has tied its financing programme with the Pakistani government’s ability to secure financial support from other commercial creditors and allies.
According to some analysts, there is still a large gap of close to $2bn between the international financing needs and the funding secured to date.
What happens next?
The next few days will be tense, and the situation will remain uncertain, thereby putting further pressure on the Pakistani economy.
It remains to be seen how the military tackles the ongoing hatred and anger shown against them today and yesterday on the streets by the very people it is supposed to protect.
This could be a watershed moment in the history of a country that has witnessed many periods of martial law and the orchestration of numerous coups since its birth.
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