Pakistan’s most popular opposition leader and former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested by paramilitary forces on Tuesday outside an Islamabad court over corruption allegations. This move, political analysts and critics say, is destined to plunge the country into a much deeper crisis.
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah told the media that an arrest warrant for Khan was issued on May 1 by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for corruption charges. “Khan did not cooperate with the bureau and hence he was arrested,” said Sanaullah.
NYC Times Square MASSIVE protest🔥🔥
Shahbaz Gill and Salman Ahmed present ❤❤ pic.twitter.com/tUxdg95ujy
— Immy Khan (@JShuike) May 10, 2023
Some said the arrest was politically motivated. “During the tenure of Imran Khan, the opposition was subjected to similar treatment,” says Zulqarnain Tahir, seasoned journalist-cum-political commentator associated with Daily Dawn – Pakistan’s leading English newspaper.
Boost to Khan’s popularity
Politically, Khan’s arrest will likely bolster his popularity and deepen Pakistan’s political instability, especially if the upcoming Punjab provincial elections are postponed, and may worsen its economic outlook.
Khan’s arrest will bolster the credibility of his long-standing allegations that the government and military are intent on arresting or assassinating him to prevent his return to power. This will likely strengthen anti-government and anti-military sentiment, weakening support for the government in the run-up to various elections.
London Councillor tried stopping the Avenfield protest but failed! NO ONE CAN STOP US! pic.twitter.com/8bfyJJNf4m
— Shayan Ali (@ShayanA2307) May 9, 2023
Meanwhile, greater political instability and waning support for the government may impact Pakistan’s urgent pursuit of an IMF bailout by further eroding IMF confidence in the government’s willingness or ability to implement requested policies.
The former leader, who faces scores of other charges, was taken into custody after at least two failed attempts to do so. The previous try in March was blocked by his supporters, who clashed with the law enforcement agencies.
Pakistan has been mired in political turmoil since Khan was ousted as prime minister in April 2022 in a no-confidence vote. Khan recently accused a senior army official of orchestrating plans to assassinate him last year, when he was shot in the leg during a protest march.
On Monday, the army retaliated by saying Khan’s allegations were “extremely unfortunate, deplorable, and unacceptable.”
Amid the instability, the Supreme Court ordered Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, to hold elections on May 14, a decision the government had no plans to implement.
Imran Khan protest goes global – A large number of Pakistanis are protesting Imran Khan’s arrest in front of Nawaz Sharif’s house in London. pic.twitter.com/34V68Ak46G
— Ashok Swain (@ashoswai) May 9, 2023
It remains unclear, however, when the next scheduled election — the Punjab provincial election, which the Supreme Court ordered be conducted May 14 — will actually be held given the threat of unrest related to Khan’s arrest, and given reportedly stalled negotiations between the PTI and the government.
Imminent economic default
Pakistan is also on the brink of economic default after a prolonged delay in getting $1.1 billion in aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Moody’s Investors Service, the credit ratings agency, warned that even if Pakistan secures that bailout, after June it would need another.
Imran Khan’s arrest intensifies an already escalating political crisis and adds fuel to the fire as the nation teeters on the edge of an economic precipice. The impact of this situation extends beyond Imran Khan himself, potentially dealing a severe blow to Pakistan’s efforts to overcome its economic crisis and secure regional assistance, including an IMF bailout.
Disappointed in Pakistan.
Had thought behind close doors, China would have put sense that political instability will not help CPEC – a great opportunity for Pakistan to punch above its weight in regional & global geopolitics at time when world is seeing biggest change since 1945!
— Pravin Sawhney (@PravinSawhney) May 9, 2023
“However, the apprehension of Khan is expected to exacerbate the existing divisions in Pakistan. Previously, there had been an agreement since 2008 that each assembly would serve its full term. But it appears that this agreement is now being called into question. As a result, there are concerns about the sustainability of the current political system.” Zulqarnain said.
The political standoff comes as Pakistan is also suffering from dire economic conditions amid stalled efforts to restart a bailout program from the International Monetary Fund. Moody’s stated on May 8 that while it expects Pakistan to make its external payments through the end of June, the country subsequently risked default barring an IMF bailout amid weak foreign exchange reserves.
Test of nerves
Ali, a senior political analyst based in Dubai, has been a keen observer of the political and security situation in Pakistan. “The arrest of a 70-year-old cricketer-turned-maverick politician is the tip of an iceberg. It can shake the political and administrative foundations of Pakistan,” M. Ali warned.
However, M. Ali said that it will interesting how the authorities come up to deal with multiple scenarios after the arrest of Imran Khan. “The public reaction to the arrest of Imran Khan has been unprecedented. Pakistan’s armed forces have faced such harsh public anger for the first time in history. The political temperature is going to remain at the boiling point either authorities release or keep Khan detained for an indefinite period.”
As I have said several times in recent months regarding #Pakistan, America is dedicated to democracy and rule of law around the world.
We stand not with individual politicians but with human rights and free speech. https://t.co/NFOJZviJFf
— Congressman Brad Sherman (@BradSherman) May 9, 2023
The arrest of Imran Khan and its aftermath will be a litmus test that will check the nerves of the government, Khan’s political party, and the military establishment.
“The government is now weighing its response, as whatever happens now will affect security, politics, and even US relation. Furthermore, the demonstrations could be used as a justification to limit Khan’s participation in politics and place restrictions on PTI,” M. Ali said.
“There are potentially three factors contributing to this approach. First, the military might be speculating that the protests will naturally lose steam over time. Secondly, the leadership could be aiming to avoid violent confrontations that could further endear the protesters to the general public or alienate their own officers and rank and file, many of whom may support Khan. Instead, they may assume that allowing the protesters to inflict damage on government property and residences will eventually turn the masses and PTI supporters within the military against them,” he said.
Today it appears the Pakistan army has reached an “enough is enough” moment re Khan. After several false starts/unsuccessful arrest attempts by the police, this time the mil took matters into its own hands.
What a mess.
— Michael Kugelman (@MichaelKugelman) May 9, 2023
Various conspiracy theories have been making round, with political observers saying that the PTI ‘activists’ confrontation with law enforcement agencies might have been instigated by invisible forces.
“Put the public anger aside for a while. Some invisible forces seem to have been pushing for specific targets to get the most popular banned,” says Rana Ahmad Fawad, a US-based renowned political analyst.
Shehbaz Sharif’s house in London surrounded pic.twitter.com/JES0uJoB96
— Shayan Ali (@ShayanA2307) May 10, 2023
“If Khan is indicted in Toshakhana case through speedy trial followed by punishment and ban on the PTI, the incumbent PDM government will go for the polls happily. However, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, currently in London, also faces contempt charges for failing to follow the court orders to hold general elections in Punjab on May 14,” he said.
Failure to hold Punjab’s provincial election May 14 would likely further intensify protest risks, particularly from PTI supporters.
Interestingly, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah has already said the government will not implement a court order they disqualify the Prime Minister. So an intriguing scenario is building up on the political horizon of the country.
This is not a #PTI jalsa in Pakistan!!! This is protest after #ImranKhanArrest
This is #Toronto Canada
This protest was announced only a few hours ago on a weeknight. I have never seen such a huge protest before.#ImranKhanOurRedLine pic.twitter.com/B2jxPtQVnD
— Shaz ملک (@shaz_Insafiyan) May 10, 2023
Rana Fawad said that there are the rumours of the imposition of Martial Law, however, he dismissed the possibility by saying that such an attempt would call for a harsh international reaction.
He also pointed to the possibility that Khan’s party, PTI, could collapse without his leadership.
“Can the PTI survive and function as a popular party when Khan is behind bars?” he asked, adding that Khan’s arrest could burnish his image as an anti-establishment leader and boost his popularity.
— PTI (@PTIofficial) May 10, 2023
There are potential ramifications for US-Pakistan relations too. In April 2022, Imran Khan was removed from the position of prime minister through a vote of no confidence. He attributed his removal to a US-backed conspiracy for regime change. While some of his supporters interpreted this as a literal US conspiracy, others understood it as a metaphor for the alleged desire of the military establishment to oust him.
To distance themselves from accusations of a US regime change conspiracy, PTI’s Fawad Chaudhry and others have recently been observed engaging in public meetings with US officials. This crisis presents a dilemma for Washington as it strives to publicly support a healthy democratic process in Pakistan, while also maintaining cordial relations with all major political parties and relying on Pakistan’s military establishment as a partner in counterterrorism efforts. Any public or private comments from Washington could potentially do more harm than good, and involving itself in what essentially amounts to a domestic political struggle would be unwise.
BREAKING: Former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has been detained https://t.co/PAiZ4D1jU3
📺 Sky 501, Virgin 602, Freeview 233 and YouTube pic.twitter.com/pLUB5bismv
— Sky News (@SkyNews) May 9, 2023
Al-Qadir Trust case
Khan’s arrest officially relates to a corruption case, though it also comes a day after Pakistan’s military rebuked Khan for reiterating long-standing accusations against a senior counterintelligence official.
According to Islamabad’s police chief, the inquiry for which Khan was arrested relates to the Al-Qadir Trust case, in which Khan and his wife allegedly obtained billions of rupees from a real estate firm in exchange for protecting the company in a money laundering case.