Pakistan has been pushed to the brink of chaos, following the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan on corruption charges.1 Khan who was fired as Prime Minister by parliament in a no-confidence vote in April last year over an increasingly authoritarian streak.2 That is an abuse of his authority.3 His recent arrest was on corruption charges.4 Khan (70) is however still very popular in Pakistan due to his being seen as the only honest person who can set the country straight.5 However he has proven himself to be a figure of contradictions, first blaming the United States, and then former army chief Qamar Javad Bajwa for his arrest.6 Speaking to Time Magazine from his home in Lahore the former Pakistani PM was clear on why the government was refusing to hold snap elections as constitutionally mandated.7 “What they are hoping is by that time, I’ll be in jail,” he said.8
And, indeed, outraged supporters of the former cricket icon have since taken to the streets across the nation of 240 million, with at least one person killed in the city of Quetta. On the streets of Islamabad, hundreds of protesters blocked main highways, while others tore down street signs and sections of overpasses, hurling stones and lighting fires. In response, Pakistani police implemented emergency anti-demonstration orders in several cities, with water cannons deployed against protesters in Karachi. Mobile data services were suspended as protests grew, with several army buildings torched. Commenting on the crisis, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for adherence to the “rule of law.” Khan’s arrest marks an escalation that many feared but hoped wouldn’t come to pass. Since his ouster in a no-confidence vote in April 2022, he has held huge rallies demanding the government of Shehbaz Sharif—brother of his longtime nemesis, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif—holds elections, which opinion polls say that Khan would be sure to win. (Imran Khan’s Arrest Fuels Pakistani Dividions, Furthering Sense of Political Persecution)
The protests in Pakistan are indeed very chaotic with the risk of this poverty stricken country already experiencing rising inflation and bankruptcy.9 The current demonstrations risk to further inflame the situation. At the heart of the current crisis is the fact that Khan’s rise to power was seen as a threat to the rigid, reserved Pakistani Political establishment that wanted to maintain the status quo. Khan was promising dynamic change despite being an authoritarian leader. This was what made him popular as well as being a former member and captain for the national Cricket team. Khan’s supporters are in the multitudes and won’t be able to be put down easily. To try him for corruption is a bold move and requires there be evidence for the charge. Given the support that Khan still commands this is going to be a difficult allegation to sell to the public.
Western leaders and political figures like Blinken are right to be concerned about the crisis unfolding in Pakistan. The country is strategically situated between Afghanistan, China, India and Iran. It is rich in mineral resources. One of the key mistakes the Pakistani political elite made was to hold the motion of no confidence for Khan, rather than to reason and negotiate with him first. Now they have to suffer the consequences of their actions, and the possible risk of engaging with so many mass demonstrations which could result in the deaths of those not able to be contained. Only time will tell in the coming months how this plays out.