Something’s Gotta Give: Imran Khan versus the Pakistan Military 

The internet was flooded with alarming images, showcasing an unprecedented backlash against the military establishment. Supporters of Imran from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, known as PTI supporters, engaged in destructive activities such as storming the General Headquarters and causing havoc at the Lahore Corps Commander’s residence. They also defaced military monuments and properties across the country. These actions were a stark contrast to the peaceful protests conducted by Mr. Khan and his party in the past, despite facing significant political harassment for over a year. In response, the military crackdown, fueled by anger, was equally brutal. Internet services were suspended, resulting in widespread blackouts and significant financial losses for telecommunication and other industries. Restrictions on public gatherings were imposed, and the military was deployed in Islamabad, Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to restore order. 

Various conspiracy theories surfaced, suggesting that the destruction of national property, including the Lahore Corps Commander’s residence, was orchestrated by collusion between the establishment and the government to discredit the PTI. However, proving these claims is challenging amidst the constant propaganda from both sides. Nevertheless, there is evidence that PTI members themselves were directly involved in the riots, as confirmed by arrested party members. Regardless of the circumstances, the events of that day represented a dark moment for Pakistan, and it is possible that everyone shares some responsibility for this tragic turn of events. Although Imran Khan was subsequently released by the Islamabad High Court, the distressing events of May 9th have strengthened the heavy-handedness of both the establishment and the incumbent Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government. 

What led to the riots on May 9th? 

Tensions between the PTI and the establishment-PDM alliance had been escalating since Imran Khan’s removal from the Prime Minister’s office on April 10th, 2022. This incident was another chapter in Pakistan’s volatile civil-military relations, albeit an extreme one. Imran Khan accused the former army chief, Bajwa, of engineering his ousting by leveraging the old guard of Pakistani politics, who had joined forces to form the PDM along with other parties. Many individual parties within the PDM are notorious for dynastic politics and rampant corruption. Imran Khan’s narrative that the establishment was supporting an alleged criminal enterprise like the PDM resonated with many Pakistanis, leading to a surge in support. 

However, the tide turned as several PTI leaders, including Shahbaz Gill, and pro-PTI journalists like Imran Riaz, faced antagonism, arrests, and even torture. Police conducted raids on the homes of PTI members without warrants, disregarding the fundamental right to privacy. Leaked audio recordings, of questionable authenticity, consistently tarnished the reputation of local PTI leaders, including Mr. Khan, further undermining the party. International human rights organizations took note as hundreds of cases were filed against Imran Khan. On November 3rd, 2022, an assassination attempt was made on his life, intensifying public anger against the establishment and fueling Imran Khan’s call for fresh elections. 

In this precarious political climate, combined with Pakistan’s inflation curse, the protests and riots on May 9th were perhaps inevitable. The most popular political party found itself at odds with the seemingly omnipotent military establishment. 

A victory for the establishment? 

The May 9th riots have allowed the military and political elites not only to bring those responsible to justice but also to retaliate against other PTI members and leaders who were not involved. Several PTI leaders have resigned from the party in response to the reprehensible acts on May 9th. While some claim these resignations are coerced, the resignees deny such allegations. The party has suffered significant weakening, with over 7,000 PTI members arrested and more arrests ongoing. 

However, the most significant consequence is the impending re-arrest of Imran Khan. Although his previous arrest was deemed unlawful due to its occurrence on court premises, he remains vulnerable to arrest in one of the many cases filed against him. 

Another confrontation on the horizon

Despite calls for dialogue between the PTI and the PDM-establishment alliance in the interest of the nation, it appears that the current army chief is uninterested in any form of negotiation. Internal rumors suggest that he holds disdain for Imran Khan and is working towards reshaping the country’s political landscape without him. However, this presents a formidable challenge due to Imran Khan’s unwavering support from within Pakistan and internationally, including the Pakistani diaspora. Public frustration against the establishment and PDM continues to escalate due to their oppressive tactics, mishandling of the economy, Pakistan’s energy crisis, and the resurgence of the Tehreek-Taliban Pakistan terrorist group. As a result, the stubbornness of the establishment, combined with the animosity of PTI supporters, creates an extremely volatile situation, comparable to a powder keg waiting for a spark to ignite. 

Javed Khan is a researcher and writer who frequently publishes on South Asian politics. Read other articles by Javed Sha.