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Khan picks another fight with Pakistan’s body politic

Pakistan’s is witnessing yet another stand-off between former prime minister Imran Khan and sections of the senior judiciary on one hand, and the political establishment and a coalition of 13 parties that calls itself the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) on the other.

Khan lost power through a vote of no-confidence on 9 April 2022 and laid the primary blame for what he calls ‘regime change’ on the former army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Khan insists that Bajwa acted against him to please the United States. Since then, he has been campaigning for early elections. In return, Khan faced a slew of court cases in Islamabad and elsewhere on charges of terrorism, sedition, contempt of court and corruption.

Khan’s demand for an early election has led to tensions and confrontation between his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and the military-backed PDM government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Sharif considers Khan the source of his country’s current political instability and the primary cause of the economic downturn.

Khan has mobilised support from the Supreme Court, which had ordered the Election Commission to hold elections in the largest province, Punjab, by 14 May. The issue has also divided judges, but Chief Justice Omar Ata Bandial and most of the 15 judges on Pakistan’s Supreme Court agreed that the constitution requires elections within 90 days of the dissolution of an assembly. The government accused Bandial of partisanship. The 14 May deadline for compliance with the court orders on elections has passed and in the words of barrister Ali Zafar, a PTI member of the Senate, ‘the constitution ceased to exist’.

The latest precipitating factor of the standoff was the 9 May arrest of Khan from an Islamabad Court, followed by acts of violence, arson and mobbing of the residence of the corps commander of Lahore. Angry PTI mobs charged and mobbed similar assets in Peshawar and Karachi. The enraged military establishment, following a corps commanders’ conference, indicated that all those found involved could be tried under the country’s Military Act 1952 and Official Secrets’ Act.

These laws are meant for trials of members of the armed forces but have in the past been used against civilians as well. Defence Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif has spoken of the possibility that Imran Khan may be tried under the Army Act but has not specified the nature of charges.

Thousands of PTI leaders and workers have been arrested since 9 May, including almost the entire central party leadership. Most of the party leaders, as well as Khan himself, have condemned the violence and arson at military properties and are calling for an independent judicial inquiry to identify arsonists and rioters. PTI members insist that not all of them belonged to the party but the government thinks otherwise.

Over 100 members of parliament have abandoned the PTI or politics altogether, the carnage on 9 May being the primary reason behind their resignations. The most common argument is that there can be no tolerance for those who are trying to malign the army and attack its installations.

Political differences aside, pressuring elected members of the national assembly to resign from office and their party and to denounce politics as a whole is an insult to democracy and the people who voted for them.

Khan’s arrest resulted from a controversial case filed by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) — an anti-corruption body headed by a retired general, which critics say is used to twist the arms of the opposition. NAB has been instrumental in implicating a number of former presidents and prime ministers and their close associates. Almost all cases ended in favour once the leaders assumed power.

NAB, whose powers have been diluted and the nature of corruption redefined under the PDM government, has now turned the heat on Khan and his associates.

After release through orders by a senior court, Khan remains defiant. ‘All I have said is that the solution to Pakistan’s problems is a free and fair election that will possibly bring political stability’, Khan said on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS on CNN. He went on: ‘the popularity of my party is at such a level that they won’t be able to stop us from winning’.

Coupled with Pakistan’s precarious economic situation, dozens of US members of congress and Canadian members of parliament have joined human rights watchdogs, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in demanding the protection of fundamental rights.

Some 66 members of the US Congress called on US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to pressure the Pakistani government to improve the country’s human rights. More than a dozen lawmakers in Canada wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressing deep concern about democracy, the rule of law and the freedom of expression in Pakistan. The letter argued that ‘as in any democratic nation, those charges [against Khan] should be aired promptly and fully in open court’.

In another development, electronic media has stopped mentioning, quoting and playing any statement — text or video — by Imran Khan.

As the government and PTI remain caught up in confrontation, the country’s economy is on a continuous downward slide, with the Pakistani currency depreciating. Uncertainty stalks financial markets as talks with the IMF for a US$1.1 billion loan remain on hold and talk of the risk of default grows.

Source: East Asia Forum