Pakistan has plunged into unprecedented and deadly political chaos following the dramatic arrest of the former Prime Minister and Chief of the Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaf (PTI) party. Imran Khan, for now, is free, but what future awaits him?
Given Pakistan’s volatile situation, it is pertinent to offer some likely scenarios that might unfold in the coming days. Pakistan’s politics is not normal. The military and its spy agency Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), hold enormous decision-making power over who will become Prime Minister and who will be deposed if they fall out with the military.
The extraordinary public display of the stand-off between the civilian supporters of the PTI and the military-backed state machinery, including the government of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), is pushing the country to uncharted territory. Imran Khan’s angry supporters set fire to at least fourteen government buildings and public and private vehicles and vandalised some military bases. However, slowly and surely, the government is regaining its authority.
To regain control over the situation, the PDM government called in its army from the barracks to petrol on the streets of Pakistan. The Internet is cut off, social media channels are switched off, and hundreds of Imran Khan’s supporters have been arrested so far. At least one journalist has gone missing, and the government is moving to ban the PTI with the help of the army.
Pakistani affairs will likely get more complicated in the coming days before gaining a modicum of stability. The political history of Pakistan and comparative analysis of the relevant stakeholders of Pakistan politics offer the following three potential scenarios.
Scenario-1: Imran Khan will be Imprisoned like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
Chatam Houses’ Pakistan expert Farzan Shaikh pointed out that the arrest of Imran Khan follows a similar pattern: the incarceration of previous prime ministers, including Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto and her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who oversaw a genocidal war in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.
Nawaz Sharif had to leave Pakistan, Benazir was under house arrest before being assassinated, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged by a controversial military court. The worst-case scenario for Imran Khan is that he could be assassinated like Benazir or perhaps be hanged. However, these possibilities are less likely as, unlike his predecessors, Imran Khan is a master strategist and a valiant risk taker, as demonstrated in his sporting and political careers. He seemed to know he would be arrested but did not back down from his criticism of the military and ISI. Despite sowing divisions in Pakistan through his anti-Western populism, Khan is now the country’s most talked-about leader in and outside the country. While this gives Khan extraordinary leverage, it also puts him at greater peril, for the Pakistani establishment is ruthless and bloody.
Scenario 2: PDM will Step Down, Army will Take Over
The arrest of Imran Khan further weakened the PDM government and paved the way for the army to step in. The government’s performance in tackling the ongoing economic crisis in Pakistan has made it unpopular as prices of essential commodities have skyrocketed by 38.42 per cent. Inflation is on the rise, and incomes have stagnated. The arrest of Imran Khan by a paramilitary force that is not accountable to a civilian government is an indication that (a) the military is already on the move to control certain decision-making processes and (b) by siding with the military, PDM is losing its legitimacy to the vast number of Pakistani youth. It is plausible that if the popularity of PDM continues to slump, Army will step in to take over power.
Scenario 3: Imran Khan could become Prime Minister, or he and the PTI will be outlawed
The third plausible scenario is that Imran Khan could be the next Prime Minister, or he and PTI will be outlawed. The are several reasons behind this. First, a March 2023 Gallup poll found that Imran Khan is now the most popular leader of Pakistan. This will make it hard for Khan’s political rivals to persecute him without prolonged unrest from Khan’s supporters. Second, Imran Khan is hugely popular among the youth under thirty, who now comprise 64% of Pakistan’s total population. For PDM and the Pakistani army, incarcerating Imran for a long time may prove costly. Therefore, they released him. They will ban PTI as they did with Jamaat in the late 60s. And like Jamaat’s founder Maududi, Imran will slowly lose his relevance to the wider society. The series of resignations by PTI leaders indicates this scenario is the most likely one.
While Khan is confrontational with the army, it is hard to tell how united the army is on the Imran Khan issue. Unlike other politicians, Imran Khan was the captain of Pakistan’s World Cup winning team. Pakistanis from all walks of life supported his cancer hospital, founded in memory of his mother. Many army men grew up idolising their World Cup winning captain. The judiciary, too, is supportive of Imran Khan.
The stand-off between Imran Khan and Pakistan has pushed Pakistan into new territory. Whatever happens in future, the latest Imran Khan saga is forcing Pakistan’s democracy to turn backwards, and for the politics of the Indo-Pacific, a volatile Pakistan is terrible news.