Imran Khan crisis: Is Pakistan facing its own January 6 moment?

Unless political parties, the military and the judiciary abide by the Constitution, coming elections won’t fix anything.

Supporters of former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan
Supporters of former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan pose with a placard in a shape of a cricket bat, with 'My-Red Line Imran Khan' written on it, outside Khan's house, in Lahore, Pakistan March 16, 2023 [Akhtar Soomro/Reuters]

The day and night of March 14, as police and Imran Khan’s supporters clashed in Lahore – the air in the swanky Zaman Park residential area thick with tear gas, bricks, sticks and petrol bombs – there was a moment when I asked myself this question: “Is this the moment?”

Political observers have asked themselves this question several times in Pakistan’s history. “The moment” could be martial law, countrywide rioting, a decisive operation that leads to more violence, or a stand down from a standoff. The question seeks clarity, either an escalation or a concession to follow the rules of politics or the law of the land.

The pitched battle happened because police were following a court order to ensure Khan’s presence for a hearing. Members of the former prime minister’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party had been encamped around his Zaman Park residence in Lahore to protect him from arrest for months. The police were armed with tear gas and sticks. PTI supporters with petrol bombs and bricks.

In the end, more police officers were injured than supporters. “Khan is our red line” has been the rallying cry for months, while the police used brute force against Khan’s followers during a protest on March 8, in which one political worker died.

Chaos is the new normal

Khan has been selective about which court summons to obey, citing security concerns since an assassination attempt last October. On Friday, March 17, Khan decided he would walk with hundreds of followers to the Lahore High Court to seek anticipatory bail.

Dozens of cases have been filed against Khan – some serious, most politically motivated. It is an excessive number of cases, even against a politician who has opted for the path of most resistance to being removed from power.

He is not the first in the country’s history: Politicians and political parties that fall afoul of the military establishment are removed and they eventually find resistance is futile. But then Khan is not following the normative rules of politics in Pakistan.

Most political leaders will choose to go to jail. It is a colonial tradition carried over into a post-colonial state that has not been able to evolve into a fully functioning democracy, so it is seen as a political rite of passage through the decades – from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to Benazir Bhutto, to her spouse Asif Ali Zardari, to Nawaz Sharif, to Maryam Nawaz Sharif.

The irony is that Khan has tried to use colonial resistance tactics to trigger elections – his chief demand since he exited the prime minister’s office in April 2022 after a vote of no confidence. He ordered a “jail bharo tehreek”, or “fill the jails movement”, this February for workers and second-tier leadership. Dozens went to jail, while Khan got preemptive bails for his various court cases and the movement fizzled out.

Several days later after the Zaman Park clashes, the answer to the question “is this the moment” has been made clear – there is still no clarity, no easy path out of chaos.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has offered a dialogue while Khan has indicated a willingness. But each is waiting for the other to make the first move. Over the last few years, ordinary political rivalries have morphed into deeply entrenched enmities. The normal arbiters – such as the military establishment and the higher courts – have become divided into politicised factions. Khan’s party exited the lower house of parliament, where in a normal democracy, political contestations are sorted. Chaos is the new normal.

“Right-wing populism pokes away at the country’s fragile compromises until they become active tensions,” says Turkish writer Ece Temelkuran in her book How to Lose a Country. Pakistan seems to be at a stage where anarchy is marking time between populism and authoritarianism. What form remains to be seen is, whether it is civilian, military-fronted or just the military.

Who is in charge?

In an interview with Voice of America, Khan reluctantly conceded that the “one man” calling the shots is the current army chief, General Asim Munir. His reluctance emanates from a strategy where he seeks the approval of the army establishment behind closed doors but uses metaphors to attack military officers when it suits his political strategy.

The duality is a nod to the support he got from within the military during his ascent to the prime ministership in 2018, and an acknowledgement of where actual power lies in Pakistan.

For example, Khan was willing to offer a third extension in his tenure to former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa in exchange for early elections last year. Elections are due in Pakistan this October. After Bajwa declined, Khan accused the former army chief of conspiring with the US to overthrow him and called for a court martial. While he was prime minister, Khan had described Bajwa as “the most democratic army chief”.

As commentator Raza Rumi has written: “The social classes that inhabit unelected institutions share Mr. Khan’s weltanschauung which comprises exhibitions of public religiosity, hatred for traditional political elites, citing ‘corruption’ as the biggest issue, and a convenient, varying dose of anti-Americanism. This is why Mr. Khan is a formidable foe for the ancien regime. He is their creature and nemesis at the same time.”

By using formidable propaganda tactics that tap into young Pakistan’s sense of disenfranchisement, Khan has found an answer to traditional power centres, as evidenced by how his supporters resisted his arrest.

But what does this mean for the upcoming elections? Will they prove to be a magic cure-all? It does not seem likely given the lessons learned from Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters in 2020 and then in 2023. Perhaps the Zaman Park resistance was a foreshadowing. Given its fragile economy and divided polity, can Pakistan afford another disputed transfer of power?

In its editorial, the country’s leading newspaper the Dawn wrote: “The democratic electoral process, which is supposed to act as the safety valve for the public’s pent-up emotions, remains in limbo, and this may be why more people are feeling the need to act violently to assert their wishes in front of the state.”

The current breakdown of the political process is not normal. Therefore, before elections, past and present grievances need to be settled between political parties, the judiciary and the military with an understanding of the rules of the game by the constitution.

Without a grand reconciliation, elections will merely be performative.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.