Imran Khan vs. Army

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When Imran Khan drove from Lahore to Islamabad on May 9th to appear before the Islamabad High Court, he was anticipating a routine day in court. But that was not to be. Thirteen months after being forced out of office in a vote of no confidence, Mr. Khan was brought from the courthouse and put into an armoured car before being handed over to the nation’s anti-corruption authorities. The erratic populist may have to watch the general elections that are set for later this year unfold from a prison cell—provided they are held at all—rather than contesting them, as he has demanded for months.

The suspected corruption in a land deal is the stated basis for Mr. Khan’s detention. (He refutes the accusations.) However, the detention seems to be connected to his heated argument with Pakistan’s military. At a public gathering on May 6, Mr. Khan alleged that Major General Faisal Naseer, a member of the army’s intelligence branch, was planning to assassinate him. Earlier, Mr. Khan had laid the blame for a botched assassination attempt on his life in November on Shehbaz Sharif, the prime minister who took his position. He received a leg shot.

The army’s public relations branch threatened legal action and described Khan’s most recent charges as “extremely unfortunate, deplorable, and unacceptable” in a rare public statement. That did not stop Imran Khan from reiterating them in a video that was captured while travelling to the Islamabad court. He was taken into custody shortly after.

In a political and constitutional crisis that has carried on for months, the arrest is the most recent development. Imran Khan has never acknowledged the validity of his ouster as prime minister a year ago. In January, his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), forced the dissolution of two provincial assemblies it controlled, including that of the vital province of Punjab, in an effort to persuade the government to call early elections. However, Mr. Sharif wants unified elections in all four provinces and the capital in October, when the current session of parliament has ended. When Mr. Khan’s request for elections in Punjab on May 14 was granted by the Supreme Court against objections from the federal government and parliament, the situation took a constitutional turn.

Before elections are scheduled, Mr. Sharif and his administration seem eager to gain time to strengthen the economy. In April, annual inflation reached a record high of 36.4%, the highest rate in Asia. Inflation in food prices is currently 48.1%. An appalling 0.5% GDP growth is anticipated this year. Pakistan still faces the risk of defaulting despite China’s bilateral assistance, with an estimated $77.5 billion in debt repayments due by June 2026 and no hint that the IMF will soon agree to continue a $6.5 billion credit programme. During a weekend visit to Islamabad, China’s foreign minister urged the nation to resolve its tumultuous political situation and concentrate on boosting the economy.

A collapse in law and order is the risk that is most urgent. Already, peaceful protests have descended into violence. Protests have been aimed at military installations, which is particularly risky and unprecedented in Pakistan’s political history. Stick-wielding demonstrators broke into the typically well-defended apartment of the city’s senior military commander in Lahore, smashed windows, set furniture on fire, and stole household items. A peacock was observed being held by one demonstrator. “I grabbed it from the home of the corps commander. It belongs to the people. We are returning what they took, the demonstrator in a mask declared. In the garrison city of Rawalpindi, protesters were also spotted breaking through the main gate of the army’s headquarters.

Images of rallies against the army on social media are a rare and striking sight in Pakistan, where they are both feared and admired. It’s possible that the government is working to keep people from seeing them. Network problems on social media, the internet, and mobile phones were being reported by Pakistanis across the country at the time of writing.

A political figure losing favour with Pakistan’s military is nothing unusual. The readiness of Mr. Khan and his followers to confront the army is novel. As Mr. Khan fights with the army, Mr. Sharif and his administration can feel confident about their chances of remaining in power. Pakistan may, however, be far closer to the precipice than they understand.

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