The arrest of Imran Khan has just deepened Pakistan’s political crisis

The arrest of Imran Khan has just deepened Pakistan’s political crisis

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The arrest of Imran Khan has deepened Pakistan’s political crisis, lengthening the shadow of doubt over the credibility of forthcoming elections. The former prime minister was convicted after a court found him guilty of “corrupt practices” and sentenced him to three years in prison. The conviction has also barred him from taking part in the elections and holding public office. 

It is yet another unfortunate episode in Pakistan’s treacherous political history, where such actions against former prime ministers are not unusual. Khan’s conviction did not come as a surprise, with the noose tightening against him for some time. He has been implicated in more than 150 criminal cases ranging from terrorism to corruption and sedation. He is facing possible conviction in other cases too. 

His confrontation with the all-powerful security establishment has proved costly to the former cricketing hero turned politician. The maverick leader who was once patronized by the military is now facing the most serious test of his checkered political career; an ironic reversal of the fate of a leader who climbed up the pedestal of power with establishment support. He fell from grace after a vote of no confidence removed his government last April. He blamed his erstwhile patrons for his downfall. 

Pull-quote: Khan may have succeeded in mobilizing mass support largely because of the disenchantment of the public with the current government’s flawed policies. But he underestimated the power of the state. 

- Zahid Hussain

Khan’s standoff with the military came to a head when his supporters, enraged by his brief detention on May 9, attacked military installations across the country. Perhaps Khan believed that a show of street power could force the establishment to step back. It didn’t work. The incident led to the security agencies retaliating with a severity not witnessed in recent times. 

Thousands of PTI supporters were arrested in a crackdown that followed the mayhem. Many of them face trial by military courts under the draconian Secrets Act. Such acts of state repression are not unfamiliar to Pakistan’s treacherous power politics. The major objective behind the crackdown was to dismantle the PTI and weaken the party’s electoral prospects. The plan seems to have succeeded; many senior leaders of his party have deserted him under pressure. 

Khan is paying dearly for taking on, simultaneously, rival political forces and the establishment. He may have succeeded in mobilizing mass support largely because of the disenchantment of the public with the current government’s flawed policies. But he underestimated the power of the state. The way the party has crumbled in the face of state repression is unprecedented.

Despite the repression however, his popular base has remained intact. Khan’s arrest has changed the country’s political landscape and reinforced widespread perceptions of pre poll rigging, rendering the entire electoral process questionable. His conviction may bar him from the electoral field but it cannot remove arguably the most popular political figure from the political scene. 

There may not have been immediate public reaction against the arrest of the former prime minister, but there is seething tension that could erupt with growing mass discontent. Khan’s arrest came as the government finally announced it was dissolving the National Assembly on August 9, a few days before the expiry of its term and clearing the way for elections. A caretaker administration will take charge with the end of the present government on the same day. The name of the head of the interim government is yet to be named. 

Yet the uncertainty over the polling date persists with the government’s decision to hold elections under the recently concluded population census. It would require a fresh de-limitation of the national assembly seats that may delay the delay the polls beyond the 90-day mandate. 

Meanwhile, a series of bills rushed through the parliament in the last few days including amendments to the Official Secrets Act gravely undermines civil rights. It provides sweeping powers to search and detain; to brand anyone an ‘enemy’ of the state on mere suspicion; to pry into citizens’ personal affairs without a court-issued warrant. 

Even in the worst period of oppression in its history, the country has not witnessed such brazen attempts to usurp civil and democratic rights. It reinforces the suspicion that the draconian law will be used to silence the opposition, thus giving greater space to the forces of authoritarianism. 

Sidelining a popular political leader never works. The arrest of the main opposition leader and the ongoing repression of the PTI has already made the electoral process questionable. 

We have seen this game being played several times in the past, with leaders of the main political parties being disqualified. But their political support base could never be destroyed. Tainted elections installing an unrepresentative government cannot deal with the enormous challenges the country is facing. 

- Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain

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