Khan’s dramatic arrest by dozens of paramilitary rangers last week for corruption sparked protests that left at least eight people dead and hundreds injured, risking further spasms of violence in a nation struggling to recover from economic collapse. In detaining the former premier, the Pakistani authorities have drawn a line in the sand: Khan is an outcast in the eyes of the state, even among former military allies, and many are increasingly ready to bear the consequences of stopping him.
“This is a very fragile moment,” said Avinash Paliwal, deputy director of the South Asia Institute at SOAS University in London. “What happens to Khan really depends on two factors: how long protesters last in their push to support who they see as their leader, and how much force the military is willing to use to crush dissent.”
Although Pakistan’s High Court ordered Khan’s release, calling the nature of his arrest unlawful, and Islamabad’s High Court later granted him bail in the land graft case, the ex-leader’s fate it’s far from certain even as he’s seeking bail in dozens of other cases he faces.
Explanation: How did the Pakistani government want to control the PTI with the arrest of Imran Khan?
His detention marks a high point after months of bitter public debates with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government and the military. The political crisis comes as Pakistan grapples with its worst economic crisis in years. Record inflation, scarce foreign exchange reserves and a still-delayed bailout by the International Monetary Fund are among the South Asian nation’s challenges.
The Army did not respond to an email and several text messages asking for comment on this story.
Fighting with generals
But it is with Khan who argues The Pakistan Army this could ultimately decide his political fate and whether he will have a chance to contest elections scheduled for the fall. Although the military was seen as instrumental in bringing Khan to power in 2018, relations soured in late 2021 as Khan sought to block the removal of a favored general from his post as head of his spy wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
A few months later, in April 2022, Khan was removed as prime minister in a vote of no confidence. He accused Sharif and other politicians of conspiring with the former army chief general Qamar Javed Bajwa to overthrow his government, saying – without evidence – that it was because he had been critical of the United States and sought closer ties with Russia and China.
Khan also claimed – again without offering evidence – that Sharif’s government and a top general were behind a gun attack during a street protest in November that wounded him in the leg. This charge was also denied.
Pakistan’s military has long dominated the country, ruling directly for 32 of the 76 years since independence and supporting many of its civilian regimes. Though the army last year swore off politics in a surprising admission of past involvement, Khan’s arrest now calls that promise into question.
“It’s not necessarily the political government that is removing it,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a researcher on South Asian issues at Kings College London. “It’s the military using the political government to remove him.”
However, trying to keep Khan, 70, behind bars is a risky strategy. The former leader continues to have massive support in Pakistan and his willingness to take on the military is popular with many voters. The 650,000 strong force is facing unprecedented condemnation on social media after years of not daring to speak up.
Following Khan’s arrest by Pakistan’s Anti-Graft Agency, rioters stormed army headquarters in Rawalpindi and set fire to a commander’s house. Sharif has ordered security officials to arrest anyone involved.
“We will create an example from the miscreants who have vandalized and attacked state institutions so that such an incident never happens again in Pakistan,” he said at a recent news conference.
On Friday, Khan was granted bail in eight cases against him and given ample protection from future arrests. But the government has promised to find other ways to silence him, signaling that the reckoning is far from over. Even as he avoids a conviction in the corruption case, Khan faces nearly 150 other charges, including terrorism, asset concealment and insulting a female judge, all of which he is denied.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s historic economic crisis is only getting worse, with stark examples of rising prices, poverty and despair emerging by the day. The benchmark interest rate is at an all-time high of 21%. And since Khan’s arrest, the rupee – Asia’s worst-performing currency over the past year – has plunged to an all-time low of 300 to the dollar.
Even if the IMF is to release funds from a stalled $6.7 billion loan program — money crucial for Pakistan to avoid a default — the country still has a total debt of about $240 billion. The Washington-based lender said it was continuing to work with the government but expressed concern over the worsening political landscape.
“At this stage, it is important to preserve economic and financial stability and we will discuss the necessary policies and funding with the authorities over the coming period to ensure that the program can continue,” he said by email last week.
Last year’s deadly floods only darkened the fiscal outlook, submerging about a third of the country, displacing millions and causing billions of dollars in damage.
Meanwhile, the battle for the elections continues. Sharif resisted Khan’s call for early polls, saying the country must focus on securing the IMF bailout. His government has become increasingly unpopular as it pushes through painful reforms in an attempt to corner the funds.
Provincially, Khan and his political allies used their majorities in parliament to dissolve two assemblies and build momentum for an early nationwide vote. This has since evolved into a constitutional crisis, as the government opposes a Supreme Court order to hold new elections.
For now, it’s hard to say how the standoff will play out or what the military will do. Since Khan’s arrest, Sharif has likened the protesters to “terrorists” and the army has already taken steps to curb the demonstrations, including the imposition of Article 245 in Punjab. This essentially put the nation’s most populous state under the control of the military.
“The military will not tolerate any further attempts to violate the sanctity and safety of its installations or vandalism,” Army Chief General Asim Munir said in a statement over the weekend.
Umbareen Javaid, chairman of the Punjab University’s political science department, expects more bloodshed if the election goes ahead.
“I expect so many to be killed,” he said. “Before there was religious intolerance and now this politics. It’s a tragedy.