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Pakistan’s political turmoil over Imran Khan’s arrest, explained

The former prime minister’s arrest reveals Pakistan at a turning point.

Protesters standing outside waving large green and red flag emblazoned with the acronym PTI and the Pakistan flag’s moon and star symbol.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party activists and supporters of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan celebrate after Supreme Court declared Khan’s arrest ‘illegal’, in Peshawar on May 11, 2023. 
Photo by Hussain Ali/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Pakistan is in turmoil after the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan earlier this week, and though he’s since been released, the country’s future remains deeply uncertain.

After Khan was arrested by paramilitary officers on Tuesday on charges of corruption for allegedly receiving a bribe in the form of land, mass protests broke out across the country (sometimes violently). Mobile data service was reportedly suspended in many regions, according to Reuters, and at least 2,800 people were arrested and eight have died.

This political crisis is, in one sense, a year in the making after Khan was forced out of the prime ministership in April 2022. But it’s also a reckoning for the country’s democracy and an indictment of Pakistan’s military, which has played an outsized role in the country’s politics — when it’s not actively running the government.

Though Khan is out of jail, that doesn’t mean the unrest has died down. The military has been deployed in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as well as the capital, Islamabad, since Wednesday to try to calm the protests. Interim Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, himself the subject of corruption charges, said Saturday that protesters who engaged in violence would be charged in anti-terrorism courts.

Khan was already a legend in Pakistan before entering politics, but the uproar over his arrest is about much more than his days as his country’s top cricketer. Rather, Khan’s populist rhetoric and open conflict with the military have struck a chord with younger Pakistanis in particular — a constituency he’s long been courting. And with record inflation, ethnic and jihadi violence, and serious class inequality defining life for many Pakistanis, it’s no surprise that Khan’s claims of political purity and his purported willingness to stand up to the military are inspiring unprecedented displays of loyalty.

“Although public consciousness about the military’s political role precedes the rise of Imran Khan, supporters of no Pakistani political party have thronged to military establishments as well as the military’s headquarters to protest the victimization of their leaders,” Muhammad Salman, a faculty member in Habib University’s comparative humanities department in Karachi, told Vox. “This represents a new consciousness in Pakistan regarding the problematic political role of the military as well as a desire that it must end now.”

Pakistan’s democracy has been fragile since its founding in 1947, defined by multiple military coups interspersed with political dynasties widely seen as corrupt. Khan, who came to power in 2018 and was initially closely allied with the military, also positioned himself as an outsider who would root out the corruption of the political class before being ousted. This week’s saga has essentially cemented his political comeback.

The saga has also presented Pakistan with an unimaginably challenging and possibly existential dilemma: stick with the old cycle of military repression and malfeasance by corrupt political families, or side with a populist openly and violently disrupting the status quo, who has himself been accused of corruption and whose anti-establishment posturing may be more about politics than principle.

How did Pakistan get here?

Khan has been involved in politics for decades, founding his own political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in 1996. He initially stood behind Pakistan’s military, even supporting the coup of General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. He came to power in 2018, and the military returned the favor in the initial years of Khan’s tenure, but the relationship soured when Khan asserted his independence, refusing to promote the military’s preferred leaders.

Allegations that Khan aimed to install an ally as army chief against the wishes of the military establishment were reported in the country’s press last spring, leading to a vote of no confidence. A parliamentary coalition comprised of smaller parties and the parties of the Bhutto and Sharif political dynasties ousted him from the prime ministership.

“The events leading up to Khan’s ouster suggest that the withdrawal of military support had indeed taken place, although the military claimed ‘neutrality,’” Salman said. “However, the events preceding the vote of no confidence strongly suggested that the military had orchestrated Khan’s ouster. For instance, smaller parties susceptible to [the] military’s manipulation, such as MQM, PML-Q, BAP ... withdrew their support of Khan’s government.”

Khan at the time blamed his removal on a conspiracy between the opposition and the United States due to his growing cooperation with the Russian and Chinese governments, a claim US officials denied. He insisted that he would not adhere to the results of the vote and that the whole process was “discredited” and “completely marred.”

Since then, he’s been campaigning for the country to hold early elections and to be allowed to run in them. That has involved increasingly vociferous attacks on the country’s military leaders.

On Tuesday, paramilitary troops entered a courthouse in Islamabad and detained Khan on corruption charges, which he has denied. Pakistani officials have accused him of illegally buying land from a business tycoon while serving as prime minister, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in losses to the country’s treasury. These charges are on top of multiple other preexisting cases against Khan. Arrest warrants are also out for Khan’s wife, Bushra Bibi, Khan told CNN.

Two days later, the country’s supreme court ruled that his arrest was “invalid and unlawful,” and he was released on bail on Friday. In a virtual speech on Saturday from his hometown of Lahore, Khan asked supporters to continue protesting Sunday, signaling the turmoil is far from settled.

Khan holds up two fingers while photographed in mid-speech wearing a black button down and black sunglasses. Behind him, large crowds of protestors are visible on the street.
In this photograph taken on November 1, 2022, Khan speaks while taking part in an anti-government march in Gujranwala. Khan was shot in the lower leg at a political rally two days later.
Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images

Pakistan faces other significant issues in addition to this crisis.

Khan has repeatedly dodged allegations that he won a rigged election in 2018, and his tenure was far from successful, as Abbas Nasir, a Pakistani journalist, wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year.

According to Nasir, Khan’s term in power “was defined by a disregard for civil liberties and independent press, the hounding of his opponents and ignoring procedures of parliamentary democracy. He failed to improve the economy, inflation rose and the International Monetary Fund halted funding after his government refused to stick to its commitments.” Khan’s move toward China and Russia also didn’t help; not only did he damage Pakistan’s relationship with the US, but it didn’t pay off financially either, as “projects in the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor remained more or less stalled.”

However, the ruling government has performed no better. Inflation is precipitously high, “the worst it’s ever been,” according to Farhan Hanif Siddiqi, an associate professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and Khan’s arrest has shown itself to be a serious political blunder. “Unprecedented inflation, the government not being able to deliver anything, combined with the embarrassment that has come [the government’s] way these last four days, is enforcing Imran Khan as the savior of this country.”

The country’s next general election, whenever it is, will then likely mean deciding between business as usual and “the kind of populist politics that has been popular the world over,” as Siddiqi put it.

Pakistan’s future is deeply uncertain

Regardless of what happens next, Pakistanis’ view of their military has shifted dramatically, and that will likely have an effect on the government, too. “There was a time, for example, if you compare this with the politics that Pakistan faced in the 1990s, there was a moral authority that the military commanded, and the politicians were seen as corrupt and the military would make ... indirect interventions in order to tell the people that they are the saviors of the country,” Siddiqi explained.

The military has lost some of that sheen through its own actions. “In Pakistan, the role of the military during civilian governments is twofold: a) to keep civilians in check, b) to protect the military’s reserved domains,” Salman said. “The first is done by making and breaking political parties, influencing party-switching during the electoral process and parliamentary voting, as well as initiating coercive action against political parties.” The military also owns or operates several businesses in the finance, real estate, and agriculture sectors, which it maneuvers to protect and promote, too.

The Pakistani military also allegedly supports a number of violent actors that disrupt the daily lives of civilians, particularly in Balochistan against ethnic Baloch separatists, according to a report from the International Crisis Group. The Pakistani military has a history of supporting violent groups, including the Afghan Taliban, to further its own interests.

There’s evidence that the military’s power is decreasing and stronger democratic institutions are taking hold, though: After Khan’s 2022 ouster, the military could have taken over the government as it has in the past. But “the space for the military is shrinking,” Salman said, as democratic institutions become more entrenched through a raft of constitutional reforms in 2010 after the fall of Musharraf.

The only way out of Pakistan’s political crisis now is to hold elections and let Pakistan’s people decide what direction they want the country to go in. Despite Khan’s popularity and the renewed energy behind his campaign, he’s more spectacle than substance, Siddiqi said. “There’s no talk about what his political program would be, what his ideological program [is] or what is it that he would bring to the people. It’s just about his persona, his personality.”

That puts Pakistani voters in the undesirable position of choosing between an entrenched and corrupt military-backed system and a civilian populist, as Uzair Younus, director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council, outlined in a Twitter thread this week.

“I’m a constitutionalist,” Younus wrote. “A person who yearns to see the rule of law, protection of basic freedoms, and expansion of free expression in the country of my birth. But I’m torn in terms of where I ought to stand today.”