Descent into chaos: on the state of Pakistan’s politics

Pakistan politicians are falling into Army’s trap by attacking one another 

May 12, 2023 12:10 am | Updated 06:45 am IST

The Pakistan Supreme Court’s order to release former Prime Minister Imran Khan after calling his arrest “unlawful” is a blow to the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the military establishment that backs it. Mr. Khan was arrested on Tuesday from the Islamabad High Court, where he had appeared to seek bail in multiple corruption cases, by the paramilitary Rangers, on an order from the National Accountability Bureau, the anti-corruption watchdog. The arrest came a day after the military had warned him against making “baseless allegations” — that a senior military figure was involved in an attempt on his life in November 2022. Ever since he was ousted from power in April 2022, Mr. Khan has campaigned against the 13-party coalition government led by Mr. Sharif. He has demanded early parliamentary elections, due for October, organised massive rallies, and won back-to-back by-elections, proving his rising popularity. On the other side, the coalition government’s approval rating has tanked amid mounting economic woes, but Mr. Sharif has refused to give in to Mr. Khan’s demands.

The former cricketer-turned-politician, who came to power in 2018, had enjoyed warm links with the military for over three years. While in power, he hounded the then opposition politicians (now in government) and, according to his own words, the military had helped him stay in power amid political challenges. But after they fell out over key military appointments, Mr. Khan turned against the generals. The new government slapped case after case on him, deepening the political rift. The military, which has staged coups and ruled for more than half of Pakistan’s existence, retains its influence. One of the reasons is that Pakistan’s ruling parties typically work with the generals to neutralise their political opponents. The coalition government made the same mistake. The allegations against Mr. Khan should be probed but the way he was arrested, using the paramilitary forces, and the nationwide crackdown on his supporters that followed raised more questions, prompting the Supreme Court to wade in and order Mr. Khan’s release. This crisis is unfolding at a time when Pakistan is undergoing one of its worst economic crises. Its foreign reserves are depleting, inflation hit a record 35% in April, the highest in South Asia, and the Pakistani rupee keeps falling. The country has also witnessed a rise in terror attacks by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has been emboldened by the Taliban’s return to power in neighbouring Afghanistan. The immediate priority for Pakistan’s leaders should have been to address these critical challenges but they are busy fighting each other instead, further weakening the country’s institutions and leaving its unelected power centres stronger.

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