The arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan in a corruption case escalated nationwide protests by his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party. The demonstrations are one of the many challenges faced by the incumbent Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government led by the Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) that could seriously exacerbate operational risks in the country through 2023.
PTI has regularly held protests ever since Khan lost power in a confidence vote. Occasional violence has occurred during past PTI demonstrations, including after Khan was shot in the leg during a public address. Although Khan has obtained bail against arrests there remains a risk of him facing repeated arrests and potential disqualification from politics if convicted. This is due to the multitude of lawsuits against him, mostly over allegations of corruption during his tenure and inciteful speech during anti-governmental rallies. Khan maintains his life is under threat and that he faces persecution by political and military establishments. Any perceived or actual attack on Khan is likely to trigger a fresh wave of violent unrest in the country.
Any such opposition protests would hold political significance and could destabilize the ruling government under PML-N. While recurrent breakdowns of law and order due to violent antigovernmental protests may hamper public confidence in the current administration, they could also inhibit opposition parties from gaining electoral support from neutral voters. The resultant political vacuum is likely to further benefit far-right Islamist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F); these parties have grown in political stature in recent years by exploiting popular disillusionment with successive governments led by relatively moderate parties like the PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The PTI has repeatedly utilized religious appeals in its antigovernmental campaign too, raising concerns of the potential mainstreaming of fundamental values.
The current administration’s delay in holding provincial elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces, despite a Supreme Court ruling, has served as a lightning rod for protests. Both provincial assemblies were dismissed after a mass resignation by lawmakers of the majority PTI party, as part of ongoing moves by the PTI to force early general elections. Court-directed negotiations between political parties over the election date remain stalled though all parties have agreed to hold general and provincial elections concurrently to minimize spending amid a grave economic crisis. Civil society groups have joined demonstrations in recent weeks as well, calling for the government to respect constitutional election deadlines and legal verdicts.
However, the legal back-and-forth over provincial polls is only a culmination of an extended tussle between the judiciary and the ruling party. The Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) and Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif have publicly criticized each other, mainly since the CJP ruled to allow PTI’s Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi to continue as the caretaker chief minister of Punjab Province until fresh provincial elections occur. The CJP denounced pressure from bar members to favor the ruling government during the hearing and claimed the unprecedented move by the federal government to not approve any of his nominees for supreme court judges during its tenure was a retaliatory move.
Activists have condemned the alleged use of state-owned or state-affiliated institutions to further political ends. Even constitutional agencies, such as the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), responsible for preventing and investigating financial crimes, are braving escalations in long-standing accusations of political bias.
The Pakistani military has also been embroiled in an unprecedented controversy, with Khan directly accusing former Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa of sabotaging his prime ministerial tenure. Khan further claims Bajwa masterminded a shooting attack on him in November 2022. Bajwa, who has admitted the unassailable political influence and dominance the military has enjoyed throughout Pakistan’s history, previously announced that leaders of the armed forces agreed to cease political involvement from February 2021. Khan is certain to intensify confrontations with the military establishment in the coming months, both to explain his ouster and win public support for addressing the persistent challenge the army poses to civilian governments. Although a military takeover of the government is highly unlikely, serving and retired army officials are almost certain to play a key role in political negotiations in case of a hung verdict in the general elections scheduled for October.
The important role of the military in controlling significant violence during political protests could lead to security force overstretch that increases the risk of opportunistic militant attacks by known terror groups, especially separatist groups active in the Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. Pakistan is already facing the deadliest year for militant attacks since 2013, with a historically high number of fatal attacks, mainly involving security personnel by the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), and the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK). These groups are capable of – and have done so in the past – staging attacks in major cities. Hence, mass casualty attacks, including those targeting of Chinese nationals by Baloch ethno-separatist groups, remain possible.
Sustained economic issues compound the political and security challenges faced by the administration. The government continues to navigate conditions set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to release tranches of a USD 6.5 billion bailout package approved in 2019. Pakistan must urgently secure external financing by June to bridge a gap in its balance of payments for this financial year. Although friendly countries like China and Saudi Arabia have extended assurances, similar issues are likely to hamper the release of future IMF loan portions and meeting external payments after June. Additionally, Pakistani citizens are facing record-high inflation affecting the affordability of essential items like food and fuel, prompting demonstrations by opposition parties and civilians. Any controversial austerity measures during the budget announcement scheduled in June, such as salary cuts for civil servants, increased taxes, and reduction in welfare handouts are potential flashpoints for larger demonstrations. Moreover, recurrence of import restrictions and foreign currency limits due to potential foreign reserve shortages may disrupt business operations.
The volatile operational situation in Pakistan will persist in the coming months. Contingency plans must account for violent protests and terror attacks that may result in security curbs like curfews, as well as shortages of essential items like fuel and raw materials.