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In a Stalemate with Pakistan’s Rulers, Imran Khan’s Party Faces an Institutional Crackdown

08 Feb 2023
By Arif Rafiq
Imran Khan attends the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in 2019. Source: Kremlin/

Pakistan’s rulers face an emboldened and resilient personality in the form of ex-prime minister Imran Khan. With such challenges now cascading upon the country, the greatest threat might yet be a further political crisis as the people abandon the government in the search for stability. 

Pakistan’s rulers — the army, intelligence services, and that segment of the civilian government with some policy-making and coercive powers — face three intersecting challenges to their authority and legitimacy.

The first is an imploding economy. Pakistan is in a balance of payments crisis. Foreign exchange reserves now cover less than three weeks of imports. A potential default looms and ordinary Pakistanis are being hit with sky-high inflation.

The second is rising terrorism. Jihadist and ethnic separatist terrorists are waging attacks against security forces at levels unseen in years.

And the third is the problem of Imran Khan. Since being sacked last April, the ex-prime minister’s popularity — as reflected in both public opinion polls and federal and provincial by-elections — has risen. Support for Khan remains resilient in spite of — or perhaps because of — the army and civilian government having thrown the kitchen sink at him.

Defectors from his party have been promoted in state media. Audio of Khan’s purported conversations — some with aides inside the prime minister’s office and others of a sexual nature with a woman — have been leaked on the Internet and promoted by pro-government influencers.

The Election Commission of Pakistan disqualified Khan from holding public office for five years for alleged corruption. Members of Khan’s party have been abducted and victimised through sexual assault or blackmail. And in November, Khan was the target of a failed assassination attempt.

Despite all this, support for Khan endures and his party is progressing. But the pressure, once again, is mounting on Khan. In recent days, several major Khan-allied politicians have been arrested. Pro-government media are fuelling rumours that Khan is next. In response, Khan has called on his supporters to court arrest and overwhelm the prisons, threatening the government with mass unrest.

Neither the civilian government nor the army has a solution for the problem of Khan. Last April, these power brokers united to oust him. They pledged to fix the economy, restore democratic rule, and improve Pakistan’s relations with the world. But on all fronts, conditions in Pakistan have only deteriorated. After bringing down Khan’s government, it is the political ships of the ex-cricketer’s civilian and military opponents that are sinking.

There’s now a low probability that Khan’s rivals will be able to restore public support before October, when the next general election must take place. Pakistan’s economy is in deep distress. To avert default, the government will have to abide by International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands — including the elimination of fuel subsidies — that will exacerbate inflation and unemployment.

To avoid a drubbing, Pakistan’s rulers appear intent on denying Khan the ability to lead his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf, in free and fair general elections. Last month, the Election Commission of Pakistan appointed a partisan figure to what’s supposed to be a non-partisan role as caretaker chief-minister of the province of Punjab. This is a preview of the bias with which the Commission will handle the electoral process over the course of this year.

There remains the significant possibility that Pakistan’s rulers will once again resort to extraordinary measures to resolve the problem of Khan. The ex-prime minister’s disqualification from public office could be upheld. He faces the possibility of arrest or even another assassination attempt. There is also chatter about the general election being delayed for an extended period. On top of all this, the government is preparing legislation that would punish persons for up to five years in prison for “ridiculing or scandalizing” the army or judiciary.

Focused on political survival, Pakistan’s rulers fail to see the big picture. They rely on old tricks — like pegging the currency or crude disinformation — to defer hard economic choices and avoid political accountability. But the economic and security trend lines are deeply ominous. And as life becomes more difficult and dangerous for common Pakistanis, trust is dangerously eroding. At a protest in Peshawar, policemen insinuated that a terror attack targeting their forces was an inside job by the country’s intelligence services.

Pakistanis are angry. Denying them the right to vote later this year will only add fuel to the fire. There is little appetite to live in a country where upward mobility and political rights are denied by the civilian-military elite. Many Pakistanis are now voting with their feet. Over 800,000 Pakistanis left the country to work abroad last year, surpassing pre-pandemic levels. According to a Gallup Pakistan survey, over fifty percent of Pakistanis with a university degree would like to leave the country.

It may be exogenous forces that can induce a political de-escalation in Pakistan. The IMF and other foreign partners, including Saudi Arabia, are pressing for a consensus on economic reforms. That seems to require agreement between the government and Khan on economic policy. But those keen on a stable Pakistan would also be wise to nudge the country’s feuding parties to commit to holding free and fair elections within the constitutionally-mandated period this year. The pathway out of Pakistan’s ongoing crisis is through the strengthening and deepening of democratic norms — not subverting them.

Arif Rafiq is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.