The army reasserts its dominance after public criticism from the former prime minister and his movement.
On May 9, paramilitary forces arrested former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on charges in an ongoing corruption case. The popular leader has spent much of the past year railing against the current government and Pakistan’s military establishment, which wields significant influence in the country’s politics. In the hours after his arrest, many of Khan’s supporters erupted in protest. Some demonstrators attacked the army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, as well as other military and government buildings.
Khan’s arrest set into motion a new level of public defiance against Pakistan’s military. Many of his supporters already saw their leader as a target of the political establishment. Khan blamed the then-army chief for his removal by parliamentary vote last year and has accused the current army chief of orchestrating his May arrest. The scenes captured on the night of May 9 were unprecedented, from a woman rattling the gates of the army headquarters to a crowd setting a top army official’s house on fire. Following the protests, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has crumbled, putting the opposition leader on the backfoot in his dogged campaign to return to power in elections supposed to take place later this year.
Since May 9, authorities have detained thousands of Khan’s supporters on suspicion of their involvement in the destruction of state and military property. Pakistan’s government has accused PTI of inciting violence and taken swift steps to ensure that protesters are punished by approving the use of military tribunals overseen by army officials. Amid the mass arrests, numerous PTI leaders have resigned, distancing themselves from Khan and in some cases voicing support for the military. All of this suggests that the Pakistan Army is reasserting its dominance after public criticism from Khan and his supporters, replaying a familiar scene of military intervention in Pakistani politics.
Khan’s arrest and the protests that followed marked an escalation in the cat-and-mouse game between the Pakistani government and the former prime minister, who has been pushing to get back in power since he was removed in April 2022. In January, two provincial assemblies controlled by PTI were dissolved in a bid to push Pakistan’s government to hold early elections. Khan has argued that the government’s failure to hold elections in the two provinces, which should have happened within 90 days of the dissolutions according the constitution, is a ploy to keep him from returning to power. Pakistan’s election committee has said elections will be held on Oct. 8.
However, the window for Khan’s return to power may be closing, as he also faces the prospect of a military trial; the government has accused him of orchestrating the May 9 protests, including the attacks on military facilities. Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said the military courts are a necessary punishment for rebellion against the state. “Whatever was happening on that day, it was a political party attacking the Pakistan army or air force,” Asif said in an interview with Foreign Policy. “We are acting in response to that war which was declared on [the] Pakistan army on May 9.”
If history is any indication, the Pakistan Army will not take the continued challenge from Khan lightly, said Aqil Shah, an associate professor of South Asian studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan. “They’re very capable of coming down hard and dismantling,” Shah said, referring to the military’s track record with political parties that fall out of favor with the institution. In the past, the military has taken over governments led by members of both the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), the party of the current prime minister.
To justify the use of the military tribunals against PTI and its supporters, the government has pointed to two pieces of legislation, the Pakistan Army Act, primarily used to try military personnel, and the Official Secrets Act, which serves to protect classified information and areas. Protesters who have been arrested on terrorism charges will be tried according to the Anti-Terrorism Act—a law intended to prevent terrorism and sectarian violence that also encompasses crimes deemed to disrupt public life, such as arson and armed resistance against law enforcement. Last week, Pakistan’s law and justice minister said that 74 cases had been sent to military courts. Some 4,000 people have been registered on terrorism charges, according to an earlier statement by the country’s interior minister.
Source: Foreign Policy