IntelBrief: Pakistan’s Political Crisis Defies Easy Disentanglement

Pakistan’s military and current political establishment are intent on denying Imran Khan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf Party (PTI) a return to power, despite the party’s ability to mobilize mass demonstrations.

The military’s use of extraordinary security-related laws to try to cripple the PTI contradicts the insistence of recent and current military leaders that they would stay out of Pakistani politics.

There are no easy pathways for domestic or regional mediators to resolve the crisis, although the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has offered to mediate a solution.

The political crisis escalated even as Pakistan’s foreign minister conducted the first such visit to historic rival India in twelve years, attending meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The May 9 arrest of PTI leader and former Prime Minister Imran Khan elevated Pakistan’s years-long political crisis to new levels, offering no clear off-ramps to prevent an all-out split in society and in the ranks of Pakistani elites and institutions. The arrest represented efforts by Pakistan’s politically powerful military and the civilian government, led by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, to ensure that Khan, who remains politically popular, does not return to power. Khan has campaigned for early elections – now scheduled for the constitutionally-mandated deadline in October 2023 – in an effort to reverse his 2022 removal by a vote of no-confidence in parliament. Prosecutors, presumably acting at the behest of Khan’s political opponents, have charged him with seeking to profit from his prime ministership during 2018-2022, and Khan has called the allegations against him politically motivated and baseless. Centered on Khan’s charismatic image as a former leading cricket star and critic of entrenched elites, the PTI has been able to mobilize mass demonstrations, some of which have included the use of violence, against the Pakistani establishment. Khan’s PTI supporters insist that the current governing elites are denying him constitutional due process. Thousands of demonstrators protested his May 9 arrest, and some stormed army installations around the country, reflecting Khan’s claims that the military and its current Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir were responsible for his prosecution and arrest. A Pakistani court issued a decision several days later that the arrest was improper, and Khan was released, at least temporarily preventing the unrest from evolving into all-out civil conflict.

The crisis has derailed the Pakistani military’s years-long efforts – articulated by Munir and his predecessor in the position, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa – to permanently withdraw from political involvement and maintain strict neutrality among the country’s contending political factions. Khan claimed that the military violated that pledge by instigating the parliament to impeach him in April 2022, but he provided no evidence to corroborate that allegation, and most observers do not attribute his removal primarily to military pressure. However, in the current crisis, Munir and the military have drawn a hard line against Khan and his supporters – apparently based on the concern that Pakistani courts are intimidated by protesters to rule in Khan’s favor. The military made its stance clear on May 15 in a statement threatening to use a 1952 law – the Pakistan Army Act – to prosecute protesters who attacked military bases after Khan’s May 9 arrest, adding that “restraint [against future such attacks on bases] would no longer be exercised.” Authorities have arrested dozens of high-ranking PTI officials, and other PTI activists have resigned or gone into hiding to avoid arrest.

The military leadership’s position – firm opposition to Khan’s return to the prime ministership – appears to reflect fears that Khan’s return would result in the firing of Munir and many top military leaders. Khan fired Munir from a previous high-ranking post when Khan was Prime Minister. Yet, the military’s stance in the crisis will likely undermine future civilian rulers and reverse the country’s slow but steady evolution away from authoritarian rule. At the same time, the Pakistani military’s open return to political interference will attract criticism from human rights groups and Western leaders who condition their views, relationships, and financial assistance to Pakistan on progress toward democratization and the rule of law. The military’s actions further reinforce the contrast with Pakistan’s large neighbor and historic rival, India, which adheres to democratic norms and keeps its military well clear of politics – even as the current Hindu nationalist-led government in New Delhi has been cited for sliding more toward authoritarianism in recent years.

There appear to be few viable off-ramps to the crisis. Khan is technically only out on bail and faces potential rearrest on several charges, including allegations that he is sheltering violent protesters in his home. Also, yet to come are judicial rulings on whether he is eligible to run for office again. Khan’s rearrest and incarceration for a prolonged period of time, a ban on his running again, or a delay of the national elections beyond the October deadline are certain to produce clashes between PTI supporters and the military and security forces. Repeated and escalating clashes between protesters and security forces, in turn, increases the potential for the military to declare martial law and step in and rule directly. Within Pakistan, few figures have the unquestioned authority to step in and mediate between the contending groups. Regional leaders that have supported Pakistan politically and financially, such as those of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and others, represent logical candidates to try to resolve the crisis, but they have little leverage other than further aid pledges. According to reports in mid-May, UAE offered to try to mediate in Pakistan but was rebuffed by Munir. UAE officials recently confirmed the country had extended a $1 billion loan to Pakistan to remove the remaining hurdles to Pakistan’s completing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the release of the final $1.1 billion tranche of a $7 billion loan agreement reached in 2019. However, the political crisis has introduced new uncertainty into the IMF loan talks; IMF officials reportedly are concerned that Pakistan’s incumbent leaders might use some of the loan funds for political purposes rather than the economic stabilization efforts for which the loan funds are intended.

The political crisis has also dampened hopes, already modest, that Pakistan and its historic adversary, India, might improve relations in the near term. Expectations for improvements in the bilateral relationship, even if slight, were raised in early May by the visit of Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to Goa, India, to attend the ministerial meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The visit was the first trip to India by a Pakistani foreign minister in twelve years. Pakistan and India joined the SCO in 2017, sixteen years after its founding in 2001 by Beijing and Moscow, along with several Central Asian states, as a purported counterweight to Washington’s influence in Eurasia and a forum for cooperation against regional terrorist groups. However, even though SCO meetings generally provide an opportunity for significant bilateral meetings at the sidelines of the formal discussions, the Pakistani and Indian foreign ministers did not meet separately. Pakistani leaders evidently assess that China, which is Pakistan’s strategic ally, has become ascendant within the SCO vis-à-vis Russia, and Foreign Minister Bhutto-Zardari’s presence, even if held in India, served Pakistan’s strategic interests.