Events following Imran Khan's recent arrest illustrate the former prime minister's popular appeal and ability to mobilise protest action. Combined with the deepening economic crisis and escalating political tensions ahead of the October elections, Pakistan faces a period of significant instability and rising levels of civil unrest, writes Richard Gardiner.
On 9 May, former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested on corruption charges. The ensuing protests by his supporters left 10 people dead and over 1,600 people arrested. Khan was subsequently released, but faces more than 100 legal cases involving allegations of corruption and terrorism, and is likely to come up against more challenges as tensions escalate between Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the military-backed ruling coalition, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). Amid political tensions, Pakistan continues to grapple with a severe economic crisis and the aftermath of the 2022 floods. As these factors combine, the country looks set for increasing uncertainty and faces a heightened threat of civil unrest ahead of the October 2023 general elections.
The Khan effect
A recent popularity poll by Gallup Pakistan revealed that 61 percent of responders view Khan favourably, compared to only 32 percent of responders viewing the PDM and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif favourably. Since being ousted in a parliamentary vote of no confidence in April 2022, Khan has used populist tactics and Pakistan's deteriorating economic situation to raise public dissent against the ruling PDM and its military backers. He has further successfully mobilised several countrywide anti-government protests with over 10,000 participants to denounce the governments attempts to prevent him from regaining political office.
Khan's undeniable popular appeal has given him the confidence to challenge the government in the upcoming general elections, and he will be eager for the countrywide protests to build momentum in the lead up to the polls. Alongside Khan's popular ascent, his supporters have been similarly emboldened to oppose government and military decisions. In May, for example, a group of pro-Khan protesters set fire to a military commander's house in Lahore in response to Khan's arrest. The rising number of protests and related violent incidents pose a threat to Pakistan's political stability. Khan has the support of large swathes of the population, as well as the ability to mobilise them. However, the PDM has the backing of the military, which has significant resources to impede Khan's ambitions of returning to power.
The military's response to the recent demonstrations is likely a precursor of what's to come. For instance, arrested protesters appeared before military courts, which have significantly less transparency than civilian ones. Military forces are further likely to limit the extent of PTI demonstrations in the coming months by arresting supporters and party leaders, implementing curfews to restrict movement or introducing internet bans to disrupt the organisation of protests and to control the flow of information. While this may suppress protests in the short term, it also has the potential to fuel hostility towards the military and government.
The military's might
Despite having a democratically elected civilian government, Pakistan's military is an influential stakeholder in national politics. Since the end of military rule in 2008, none of Pakistan's five elected prime ministers have served a full five-year term, with their leadership demise often linked to disputes with the military. The hybrid-civilian style of leadership has favoured the military's approach of indirect influence within the political sphere, which has allowed it to maintain authority from behind the scenes.
The simultaneous political and economic challenges that Pakistan faces have had a significant impact on the country's commercial sector. Deepening political instability is a strong deterrent for foreign investors and has hindered much-needed domestic economic growth. For example, the threat of internet shutdowns has impacted Pakistan's IT and e-commerce industries. The shutdown in the wake of Khan's arrest cost telecom operators USD 5.4 million, and the resulting service disruptions cost the government USD 1.9 million in lost tax revenues. Additionally, the threat of further violent unrest in the coming months has the potential to cause damage to commercial property, as well as prolonged business closures.
The economy on the brink
Pakistan's worsening political situation is playing out against the backdrop of an unfolding economic crisis. There is a high likelihood of the country defaulting on its debt, which would exacerbate existing grievances and set the scene for further unrest. The cost of living has soared over the past year, with headline inflation reaching 36.4 percent in April, while food inflation reached 48.1 percent. Additionally, there has been an increase of 3 million people living in poverty since 2018. If the country fails to meet its debt obligations, including the USD 4.5 billion owed by the end of June, the economic situation will likely deteriorate further. In the context of the ongoing political crisis and the upcoming elections, this has the potential to deepen anti-government sentiment, which Khan and the PTI will aim to leverage to discredit the current administration.
The PDM has the backing of the military, which has significant resources to impede Khan's ambitions of returning to power."
Khan has continuously called for general elections to take place as soon as possible, yet the government has remained adamant that voters will only go to the polls in October. The reluctance to bring the elections forward is an acknowledgement of the threat that Khan poses. However, if Khan were to be imprisoned or banned from running in the election, the government would risk playing directly into Khan's populist rhetoric and deepen the feelings of mistrust towards the PDM and the military. The recent developments point to the deep divisions within Pakistan's political landscape, and there is little sign of tensions easing in the short term. At a time when a collective effort is needed amongst stakeholders in the political and military spheres to tackle the deepening economic crisis, the opposite is happening. Pakistan faces the gloomy prospect of prolonged instability and unrest as political tensions persist, and economic challenges worsen.