The situation in Pakistan is highly unstable and volatile, with political and economic crises intensifying and exacerbating each other. The May 9 arrest of Imran Khan — former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf Party (PTI) — has triggered violent reactions from his supporters, leading to attacks on military installations and civilian buildings. The military, which had previously supported Khan, showed restraint to the violence, but has also vowed to take legal action against those involved in the attacks.
The Supreme Court ordered Khan's release on May 12 but he remains "under protection" of security forces in Islamabad.
Khan came to power in the 2018 general elections that were alleged to be rigged in his favour by the military establishment. Their relationship broke down after 2020 due to several factors. Khan's personality was more self-centered and egotistic, leading to clashes with military generals over the appointment of high officials. Moreover, the economy was not growing, leading to mounting economic pressures on both sides.
While Khan refused to normalise relations with India, the military commander-in-chief saw it as a key strategy. Khan also held a sympathetic view of the Taliban government in Afghanistan and tried to cosy up to the head of the intelligence service, ISI, to split the army's loyalty. Khan repatriated more than 5000 Pakistani Taliban from Afghanistan under the guise of rehabilitation, a move opposed by military generals. He was in favour of negotiating with the Taliban government, leading some to speculate that he wanted to become a better version of the Taliban than the original.
Khan's differences with the military on key issues, such as the economy, India-Pakistan relations and the Taliban government in Afghanistan, seem to have contributed to his downfall. His adventurist strategy to counter his arrest has backfired, leading to widespread arrests of his party's activists and the party being on the run. In his bid to become prime minister again, Khan dissolved his own provincial governments in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa — two important provinces in the Pakistani federation, but his moves were thwarted by the present government and military establishment by delaying the elections.
Developments so far
Ten people were killed when Khan was arrested and most of the country, including the motorways, remained closed. This well-planned violent response, as the present government alleges, was the result of Khan's instructions to his leaders and cadre. The government further alleges that Khan hoped to trigger a violent response from the military establishment by asking his supporters to directly confront them. His plan, the government suggests, was to destabilise the regime to the point where the military would take over the government and declare martial law.
The military issued a press statement on May 10 declaring May 9 as the black day in Pakistan's history, announcing a restrained response to the burning of their buildings and warning that they would not tolerate any future attacks. Legal action has also been taken against those involved in the violent actions.
Wholesale arrests of PTI activists have been carried out throughout the country, with most of the party's main leaders arrested. Murder and attempted murder cases have been registered under anti-terrorist laws. The PTI party is now paying dearly for its adventurist strategy to counter its leader's arrest, and the party is on the run. However, small groups of PTI supporters continue to burn vehicles, but the mass response to the arrest has disappeared.
What's in the offing?
The increasing deployment of violence and the military’s intervention in civilian affairs does not bode well for the future for democratic forces in Pakistan. With the excuse to maintain law and order, the military's control over civilian affairs will increase. The stifling of dissent will continue and free speech will be criminalised and working classes of the country will be further pushed to poverty.
It must be noted that there is no fundamental contradiction between Khan and Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. Khan is simply trying to cajole or coerce the military establishment to get him back to the seat of power. In order to do that, Khan, in his previous government, tried to strengthen the military. His government passed a notorious law criminalising any criticism of the armed forces, which is now being used against him. During his tenure as prime minister, he used the anti-corruption watchdog, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), to witch-hunt his opponents. Today, the same NAB is being used against him.
The collapse of the economy, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic and climate disasters, has led to severe poverty and inequality in Pakistan. The implementation of neoliberal policies and the dominance of the military in civilian life are likely to further shrink democratic space and exacerbate poverty and inequality in the country. Ordinary people are likely to bear the brunt of the power struggles and political crises in the country.
The palace-intrigues between Pakistan’s political elite and military establishment has worsened the economic conditions. Strengthening democratic forces would require a complete overhaul of the system including policies that favour the people. Pakistan’s elite consume Rs 27 billion in subsidies to sustain their lifestyle. Any political force that doesn’t challenge such gross inequality will continue to be in cahoots with the military establishment, furthering the economic poverty of its people.
[Farooq Tariq will be a guest speaker at the 2023 Ecosocialism Conference in Melbourne, July 1–2.]