Pakistan has been engulfed in turmoil since the arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan on Tuesday. Supporters of Khan, who faces corruption-related charges, have staged protests across the country, some of which turned violent. On Thursday, the country’s Supreme Court declared the arrest illegaland ordered his immediate release.
The crisis is casting fresh doubt on the government’s ability to calm the nerves of foreign lenders, especially the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose financial support is desperately needed to pull the country’s economy back from the brink.
Part of a pattern?
Political unrest has been a constant in Pakistan since Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote in April 2022; however, this latest escalation signals a new level of volatility, as it brings Khan and his supporters into direct confrontation with the country’s all-powerful military. In 2018, the military supported Khan’s rise to prime ministership, but a falling-out in 2021 over the appointment of an intelligence chief soured the relationship. Since his ouster, Khan has vigorously rallied his supporters and used unusually confrontational language in criticizing the military establishment.
Several observers have speculated that the military may be using the corruption charges as a way to disqualify Khan from seeking office again. Some also describe the current showdown as part of a dangerous pattern whereby the military detains — or worse — politically powerful actors who fall out of its favour.
Timing is everything
Even if the government complies with the Supreme Court’s directive to release Khan, the current instability is not likely to dissipate. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif needs the IMF to release a tranche of C$1.5 billion in funding, part of a larger rescue package, to help stabilize the country’s economy.
Pakistan is constitutionally mandated to hold elections in October, and Khan’s political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, has been performing well in byelections and recent polls. The terms of Islamabad’s IMF agreement expire in June, and the IMF may get squeamish about a new agreement, given the profound uncertainty about which government it will be dealing with in the months that follow.