Date first published: 16/05/2023
Key sectors: all
Key risks: civil unrest, political violence, economic crisis
Pakistan is facing the greatest threat to its internal stability since 1971 – with the military-dominated system of government challenged. The arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan outside an Islamabad court on 9 May triggered a wave of violent protests. Violent protests are not rare, but what made them exceptional is that they were targeted at Pakistan’s security establishment. Khan has since been released, but there are few signs that the situation will calm down.
Why it matters
Khan, who was removed as prime minister in April 2022, has a mass following in the country. His personality cult and his ability to use social media meant that even after removed from office, he continued to attract supporters. A February 2023 Gallup poll showed that 61 per cent of the country were positive about him. His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has won 28 out of 37 by-elections held in 2022.
Khan’s main message is antagonistic to the military. Khan claimed that the military and the intelligence services act above the law. He blames the ‘deep state’ for his removal. He claimed that an intelligence officer was behind a 2022 attempt to assassinate him. These messages have become attractive to many, as living standards have fallen dramatically and the economy is at the brink of collapse.
His refusal to step away from the political scene has added to instability. A series of corruption cases – including one that led to his latest arrest – against him could prevent him running from office. Members of the PTI have been arrested, which has partly disrupted its ability to operate. However, they have arguably further fueled popular resentment toward the government, expressed in protests across the country.
Pakistan’s system of government has been described as military rule by other means. The military controls large swathes of the economy and has regularly intervened in politics. A civilian government may be formally elected, but none can remain in their position without the support of the military. Khan himself became prime minister due in part to the support of the military and, while it was done through a constitutional no-confidence vote, he was removed from office only after he lost the military’s support.
The key question now is what happens next. The last week has highlighted Khan’s continued popularity and the level of public anger towards the state. It also indicates that the military establishment are continuing in their attempts to suppress Khan’s power, but to do so would require heavy-handed tactics to prevent mass and potentially revolutionary dissent. If Khan were prevented from running in the next election, or was preventing from serving in office, it could trigger mass violence and a growth in revolutionary sentiments.
Khan has indicated a way out. He has emphasised that there is still a role for the military in politics, albeit one ‘based on the rule of law’. He said that the ‘military can play a constructive role’ in the future. These statements are vague – but do suggest that he is willing to reach some compromise where the military would share power with a civilian government.
The problem is that it is unclear whether that would be acceptable. If the military were to reduce its role in politics, it would be a radical change in a system that has endured since 1947. It would also give Khan the upper hand, as it would be seen as if they capitulated to his – and the masses – demands. Khan’s supporters may also be wary of any potential compromise.