Can Pakistan’s Imran Khan and army patch up, a year after violent clashes?

Both sides have so far rejected concessions, but many analysts say this rupture is untenable and a compromise is needed.

Former prime minister Imran Khan
Former Prime Minister Imran Khan arrives at the Islamabad High Court on May 12, 2023, three days after his brief arrest after which widespread protests broke out [Sohail Shahzad/EPA]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan Army chief General Asim Munir was blunt. Addressing army officials during his visit to Lahore Garrison on May 9, Munir said, “There can be no compromise or deal with the planners and architects of this dark chapter in our history.”

Munir was referring to the events of May 9, 2023, when Pakistan erupted in violence and a subsequent crackdown after former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested while appearing before the Islamabad High Court for a hearing into a case of corruption.

Thousands of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party workers responded to Khan’s arrest by storming the streets in various cities, demanding his immediate release and going on a rampage in which state buildings and military installations were targeted. Angry supporters in Lahore targeted the residence of a top military commander, torching the building. Another group of protesters raided the gates of the Pakistani military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi.

While Khan was released two days later, he was arrested again in August. The police had by that time arrested thousands of PTI workers and party leaders. An already tense relationship between Pakistan’s military and the PTI ruptured, descending into public hostility.

Now, a year later, that broken relationship continues to strain a political system that is also struggling to manage an economic crisis striking at the everyday lives of Pakistan’s 240 million people, analysts say. The military, which felt directly challenged — even attacked — on May 9, 2023, remains Pakistan’s most powerful institution. Meanwhile, the PTI, which emerged as Pakistan’s most popular political force in February national elections, even though its talismanic leader was behind bars and despite a crackdown against it, faces questions over its future.

“It is no secret that our relationship with military leadership has frazzled and there is significant mistrust on both sides,” Taimur Jhagra, a senior PTI leader and former minister in the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told Al Jazeera. “This will have to be resolved because in no country can the largest political force and strongest institution in the state stand against each other.”

PTI has maintained that the riots on May 9 were part of a "false flag" operation against the party. [Rahat Dar/EPA]
PTI has maintained that the riots on May 9, 2023, were part of a ‘false flag’ operation against the party [Rahat Dar/EPA]

Pakistan’s military — euphemistically known in the country as the “establishment” — has directly ruled the country for more than three decades since independence and has wielded significant influence under civilian governments too.

When Khan became Pakistan’s prime minister in August 2018 after winning elections, his rivals claimed that the military facilitated his triumph. Four years later, Khan accused the military of orchestrating his removal from power through a vote of no confidence. The military has rejected both those accusations and the claims that it plays kingmaker in Pakistani politics.

In the 12 months after he had to leave office, Khan took out huge rallies and long marches to Islamabad, survived an assassination attempt, delivered speeches daily, and repeatedly accused the military of joining a United States-backed conspiracy to eject him from office. The US too has consistently denied those allegations.

But those tensions between Khan and the military exploded in May last year. Within two weeks of the violent May 9 protests, as security agencies cracked down on alleged perpetrators, more than 100 party leaders announced their decision to leave the party in hastily arranged news conferences that often appeared stage-managed. The party, it seemed, was imploding.

A former PTI leader who was once considered close to Khan but ended up leaving the party after May 9 said he would often raise concerns within the party about the rising confrontation with the military months before the events that unfolded last year.

“I was saying this in our party meetings repeatedly that we might be heading towards a big disaster, as both sides, us and them, are perhaps underestimating each other and heading towards a confrontation,” he told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

Several party leaders were jailed on charges of plotting the events of May 9, 2023.

While the PTI insists that the events were part of a “false flag operation” to malign the party, some analysts believe that the party miscalculated the military’s response to the rioting that day.

“They assumed they had the room to challenge the military since Khan was able to get away with saying things publicly that others had been punished for saying, and swiftly. But they were mistaken in attempting to challenge the military’s monopoly over violence,” political scientist Sameen Mohsin, an assistant professor at the University of Birmingham, told Al Jazeera.

Asma Faiz, an associate professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences, said the “very smooth relationship” the PTI once enjoyed with the military might have given the party confidence that it could survive the escalating tensions.

“PTI still continues to enjoy support among individuals within the military, judiciary and bureaucracy, so there is broad-based societal support also. That I think led to this miscalculation from them but they had their reasons and logic,” she said.

Despite having to contest election without their iconic symbol of "bat", PTI-backed candidates emerged with the highest number of seats in February 8 elections this year. [Bilawal Arbab/EPA]
Despite having to contest without their symbol ‘bat’, PTI-backed candidates emerged with the highest number of seats in the February 8 elections this year [Bilawal Arbab/EPA]

Jhagra, the PTI leader, said the party was clear that anybody guilty of violating the law should be punished. “But you must remember that May 9 [protests and violence] did not happen in isolation. Starting from the vote of no confidence leading to the ouster of government, and the actual arrest of Khan on May 9, questions must be asked if May 9 would have happened if the events of last year hadn’t,” he said.

As the party continued to face arrests and legal challenges, Khan, who had already been charged in more than 100 cases, was arrested on August 5 last year in a corruption case related to state gifts since he was premier. He was barred from contesting elections due to his conviction. In December 2023, the party’s symbol, a cricket bat, was taken away by the country’s election panel over “irregularities” in the PTI’s intra-party elections.

With just 10 days to go before the polls, the former PM was sentenced in three different cases – revealing state secrets, illegal sale of state gifts, and unlawful marriage.

Despite these setbacks, candidates backed by the PTI, who were forced to contest as independents because the party had lost its symbol, emerged as the largest bloc, winning 93 seats in the lower house of Pakistan’s parliament.

“The people of Pakistan believe that Imran Khan is a patriotic leader, and his supporters are being unfairly treated. The February 8 election results showed this,” Jhagra said.

Still, the party refused to forge a coalition with either of its political rivals: PTI has long described the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan People’s Party, the two other leading national parties, as corrupt, and has maintained that it will not join hands with them.

So they joined hands themselves, forming the coalition that currently rules Pakistan, under Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

Meanwhile, a year after the May 9 protests, the rhetoric from both sides remains sharp. Khan, who remains behind bars, continues to criticise the military. The military, on its part, has insisted that those involved in the May 9 violence will be punished. “It was a futile attempt to bring about a misplaced and shortsighted revolution in the country,” the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s media wing, said in a press statement to mark the anniversary of the incident.

The military has described May 9, 2023, as “one of the blackest days” in the history of the country.

Jhagra insists that PTI is not an antimilitary party, but acknowledged that there was a lack of trust between the two.

Lahore-based analyst Benazir Shah noted that at this juncture, “both the PTI and the establishment must step back from the confrontation”.

“The ISPR press conference underscores that the establishment is still refusing to engage with the PTI. Despite the PTI’s history of populism and perhaps, certain undemocratic actions, it remains an electoral force. Disregarding it and avoiding dialogue with its leadership would not be in the state’s best interest,” she told Al Jazeera.

The PTI needs to reflect too, said the former party leader who quit after the May 9 violence. The party’s current strategy, he said, was incomprehensible to him.

“On one hand you have ruled out political settlement” with political parties, he said. “You have taken on the establishment believing they will buckle under pressure, but I don’t think this makes sense in reality,” he added.

Still, Faiz, the Lahore-based political scientist, pointed out that the PTI had survived the setbacks of the past year — just as the parties it now accuses of having betrayed democracy once did.

“We do not give enough credit to Pakistani political parties,” she said. “PPP survived martial law, PMLN survived martial law, and now PTI is showing courage. They all have certain resilience.”

What happens next could hinge on a few difficult questions for both sides, suggested Mohsin, the political scientist.

“The question for the PTI is whether prominent members of the party will decide that they prefer to be in power more than being loyal to Khan and continuing to be out of favour with the military establishment,” she said.

Shah, the Lahore-based analyst said the PTI needed to climb down from its position of refusing to speak to other political parties.

But the military establishment and Pakistan’s larger political class too must try to understand why so many people, including young men and women, “came out with such passion for their leader and the party” on May 9, 2023, she said.

“The question to ask here would be: What was the root cause of the anger among these people?” Shah said. “This is a question that must be answered to prevent another May 9 happening in the future.”

Source: Al Jazeera