Is Pakistan in danger of a military coup? The arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan has exacerbated tensions between the military and civil society

Štefan Talarovič

Footage of the dramatic arrest of Imran Khan, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, has sparked nationwide protests in the country. These quickly escalated into widespread riots, and the army had to intervene. Khan, now considered the leader of the opposition, faces a number of charges in his native Pakistan, ranging from corruption to supporting terrorism. But he denies the allegations, describing them as politically motivated. Growing tensions between the military and civil society have the potential to significantly destabilise Pakistan, with the country also facing the threat of a military coup.  

In response to the scale of the protests and unrest following Khan’s arrest, local authorities in the most populous province of Punjab in the east, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the north-west and in the capital, Islamabad, have declared a state of emergency. Thousands of supporters of the opposition leader were detained, and hundreds sustained injuries in the army crackdown, several of whom subsequently died. The security situation improved only after a Supreme Court decision, which granted Khan bail and temporary protection from arrest on any other charges because of the “illegal” manner of his detention. Human rights organisations have criticised the internet blackouts, which were linked to the blocking of the social networking sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) at the request of the Ministry of Interior. 

Imran Khan, head of the opposition Pakistan Justice Movement (PTI), is under investigation in connection with more than a hundred allegations. These range from corruption to attempts to incite sedition to support of terrorism. Khan denies them as politically motivated. In particular, the corruption scandal surrounding the al-Qadir trust fund, which is aimed at spreading spirituality and Islamic teachings, has been the focus of media attention. Khan set it up with his wife. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB), formally an independent anti-corruption agency, has accused the former prime minister of creating a quid pro quo agreement with Malik Riaz Hussain, a Pakistani real estate tycoon and one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, to provide the trust with lucrative land for a planned university. A final conviction of the 70-year-old politician would mean that he would not be able to run for the National Assembly again and, therefore, would not be able to run for the post of prime minister. For this reason, the anti-corruption agency has long faced allegations of politicisation of investigations into former prime ministers, leading politicians and retired military officers who are perceived as political opponents of the ruling establishment and the influential military.

Khan already came into conflict with the army during his time as prime minister. His party, the PTI, won the July 2018 parliamentary elections thanks to its anti-corruption populism and criticism of the leaders of Pakistan’s traditional political dynasties, the Sharif and Bhutto families. But the loss of support from the military’s top brass, caused by Khan’s efforts to empower the civilian government in appointing military leaders, irreversibly led to the collapse of his government after a no-confidence motion in the National Assembly in April 2022. Even the new government of Shahbaz Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, has been unable to effectively prevent the economic decline caused by rising inflation, Pakistan’s rupee currency crisis, and the devastating floods of the past year. The PTI has also begun to regain popularity as a result. In response to worsening living conditions, the Khan-led party has begun organising anti-government demonstrations across the country. During one of them, Khan was even the target of a failed assassination attempt in November 2022. He subsequently blamed the notorious military intelligence agency ISI for masterminding the operation, which put him in direct confrontation with the Pakistan Armed Forces and, more specifically, with Asim Munir Ahmed, the Chief of General Staff. The army has long been dominant in the country, as evidenced by a series of military coups that have seen the South Asian republic undergo several forced transitions from a democratic set-up to junta rule since independence in 1947. The PTI’s rising popularity in pre-election polls and Khan’s ability to keep the masses on the streets pose an unprecedented challenge to the military top brass in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the armed forces, which has also been the target of the recent unrest.

The risk of the army taking control of the government in Islamabad is growing considerably. A state of emergency would pose a threat to civil liberties, media freedom and democratic opposition. The weakening of democratic institutions in favour of a military regime would deter the prospect of foreign investment, preventing any economic growth in the second most populous Muslim country. Pakistan’s continued socio-economic instability may create a breeding ground for extremist movements and intensified separatist aspirations by various ethnic minorities. In addition, a possible military coup would mean a risk of international isolation. This risk is much higher in Pakistan than in the neighbouring regional power, India, which is experiencing the authoritarian tendencies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his nationalist party, the BJP. In spite of that, steady economic growth makes New Delhi a strategic counterweight to Beijing in the face of rising tensions between the West and China.

Moreover, in the event of a coup and international isolation, Islamabad could also solve its economic problems by pivoting to China and Russia at the expense of a complicated alliance with the US.

Photo credit: Tehreek-e-Insaf

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