Conflict between Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan and the army, which has come to a head after more than a year of troubled relations, has once again brought to the fore the inherent instability of the country’s political system propped by the armed forces. Pakistan is often termed as a failed state because of the peculiar relationship between the army and its civilian leaders since its inception. Its generals have always interfered with running of the government. The political leaders therefore have shown a tendency to depend on the army’s backing for their own survival. It is certainly not a sign of healthy democracy that none of Pakistan’s 31 Prime Ministers so far have been able to complete a full five-year term. It is an unwritten law in the country that politicians will continue to rule as long as they enjoy the support of the army.
Imran Khan, who during his tenure as PM was criticized for turning authoritarian, tried to go against the all-powerful army and had to pay the consequences by losing power. However, the economic mess in the country has once again given him the opportunity to raise his head. He seems to be the only democratic political leader that Pakistan currently has. His ability to remain neutral and yet be diplomatically friendly with both Russia and China on one hand and the Western bloc on the other was proven when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. His sports background and a semi flamboyant lifestyle helped him gain acceptability internationally. Whatever bad will was created towards Imran was after he became a clear supporter of radical Islamists in his desire to retain power.
However, his popularity seems to have not only returned but also increased remarkably in recent times in Pakistan. This seems to have sent the alarm bells ringing both in the army establishment and the ruling coalition. To keep Khan out of reckoning, the government charged him with corruption and terrorism leading to his custody earlier this month. He is currently facing 120 charges across the country for which he fears he could be arrested any time, even though he has been granted interim bail from the Supreme Court.
Recent developments suggest Pakistan’s military leadership is going full throttle to sideline Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party from politics. Khan blamed Pakistan Army chief Asim Munir for ordering his arrest by paramilitary forces. As the army was being discredited in public perception, in self defence, it issued a statement vowing to use the Pakistan Army Act to prosecute protesters who attacked military facilities after Khan’s arrest. The 1952 law involves the use of military trials, mainly to prosecute military officers. An amendment in 2015 gave the military powers to prosecute civilians too. The civilian leaders endorsed the army statement apparently because the Supreme Court had recently ordered Khan’s release and rejected an earlier government decision to delay two provincial elections. Army leaders seem determined to stop the due process of law fearing the judiciary may be too lenient towards Khan. Hence, they are now set to use their powers to corner Khan and his followers.
At this stage reports have emerged that Khan has been asked to either go to London in exile or face trial under the Army Act. The offer is said to have come from ‘powerful elements’. Khan himself alleged in a series of tweets that the country’s military establishment wants to imprison him for the next 10 years under sedition charges. It also plans to put his wife, Bushra Begum, behind bars in order to humiliate him, he has alleged. He said the army was using the pretext of violence committed by his supporters while he was in prison. He even suggested he might meet the fate of Mujibur Rahman of the erstwhile East Pakistan, who was not allowed to rule the country in 1971 by the army with the help of Z A Bhutto after his party Awami League secured a majority.
Sensing serious trouble ahead, Khan has started to adopt a conciliatory tone towards the army stating that he had no problems with the army general. He claims his political opponents are trying to drive a wedge between him and the army to ensure they win the coming elections.
Pakistan seems to be heading towards another period of chaos that is likely again to help the army consolidate its position as the de facto ruler of the country. This does not augur well for the country.
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