March 14 was a dramatic day for Pakistan. This was the day, the country’s military said, that it would arrest Imran Khan. He was once an international cricketer, then a politician, then prime minister, and is now, after being deposed as PM by a no-confidence motion last year, a tub-thumping campaigner against what he describes as a corrupt system tying the Pakistani military and the rest of the country’s political parties together. (I was a policy adviser to Khan between 2012 and 2014 but have no professional contact with him at present.)
But the day turned into a triumph for Khan after the police were unable to arrest him. The aftermath has been unlike anything in contemporary Pakistani history. The military, which has governed the country alongside chosen cooperative politicians since independence from Britain 75 years ago, now faces a serious threat from an insurgent who uses the language of democracy and the rule of law. And in response, it’s increasingly possible that the military, tired of playing chess against Khan, will simply sweep the pieces from the board.
In recent months, Khan has led his supporters in a series of mass rallies and mass marches. He has been shot at and wounded. His political supporters have clashed with police; they say they were attacked, while the police say the opposite. And members of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party have been arrested and, they allege, tortured in police custody. One supporter was allegedly tortured to death last week.
This all came to a head on March 14, when Khan was due to be arrested on what his supporters say are trumped-up terrorism charges. Large numbers of Khan’s supporters gathered outside his home in Lahore, Pakistan, to contest the arrest. Police used tear gas, water cannons and batons to attempt to clear a path into Khan’s home. They were repulsed by the crowds. Khan remains free.
In a video message posted to Twitter, Khan remained defiant. If he is arrested, he said, his allies must fight for “true freedom” and the rule of law. Khan maintains that he and his party have been set up: that the charges against him are malicious and false, and that the intention of any arrest would be to disqualify and deprive him of the ability to take his months-long campaign into a forthcoming general election.
As I reported last year, after Khan lost power in a close no-confidence vote in April 2022, he began a barn-burning campaign of rallies and speeches contesting the legitimacy of power in the country. He accused the military of having received its orders to remove him from the United States; he said that the judiciary in the country was hopelessly corrupt; and he launched a serious assault against the military’s place in Pakistani society, including its stranglehold over the country’s economy.
Throughout Khan’s campaign, the military and other politicians have attempted to defer what increasingly looks like a grassroots political revolution: Khan was charged with terrorism offenses for “threatening” a judge and officials; he was also accused of corruption for accepting gifts while in office. His rallies have been broken up. His broadcasts have been subject to restrictions. And he has been shot.
But now, those in office in Pakistan are facing a solid deadline: The politicians and military have only until October this year to call elections under the country’s electoral term limits. Khan’s PTI party has won several local and regional contests since he was removed from power. Khan’s party won a plurality of the vote in the last election, in 2018; followed by the PTI taking 15 of the 20 contested seats in the legislative assembly of Punjab state—the most populous province of Pakistan and a former stronghold of Shehbaz Sharif, current prime minister and Pakistan Muslim League party leader—in the 2022 local elections.
If another election is held and the polls are accurate, it is likely Khan would win with an overwhelming majority. This is a threat to the military and the parties currently in government alike: If Khan were to win, he would do so on a platform explicitly oriented around reining in the military and clearing out the current politico-legal system, including a reform of the country’s judiciary.
Khan’s supporters appreciate they are in a difficult position: Their leader was almost arrested today, and his allies had to hold back the police with their bodies. But they are confident that a revolution might be coming. They say that Khan has created a pro-democracy movement that now transcends party. For the first time in Pakistani history, they say, rich and poor are united in opposition to the military’s chosen government.
Elections in Pakistan have in the past been contests in which patronage often carried great weight. In most elections, powerful and wealthy candidates, called “electables,” are put up by any and all parties. These are often landlords or powerful local businessmen. Perhaps they have a useful tribal, clan, or caste affiliation, or have done a favour for the army or a ministry; they can be safely placed before the electorate, who can be counted upon to signal assent to the individual regardless of party. Thus goes the stereotype.
The electables are notorious floating voters within the legislative branch, switching loyalty and party after cutting deals to get good positions in office. There are some who have been candidates for all the major parties without breaking step.
This system re-emerges at every Pakistani election; it is a consistent theme. But now, it is being challenged. If polling is accurate, the public is increasingly interested not in individuals, or their betters, but in party politics, especially those represented by Khan. The PTI endorsement is a hot ticket. Those who get it are likely to win against the electables sporting the banners of political convenience.
All of this is a challenge not only to the ordinary nature of Pakistani politics, but also to the military, whose hand can be felt behind all votes and government formations.
Khan has not been arrested today, so he cannot be disqualified from running in the coming elections. He is still a threat to the status quo, and gunning for those in power whom he believes have slighted him.
This leaves the military with few options. It can try once again to arrest the opposition leader. In prison he might not, they might bet, be as visible—although Pakistan’s history is full of leaders who kept movements going from jail. But if imprisonment continues to prove impossible, Khan’s supporters claim, the military has only two options left: assassinate Khan and hope his movement dies with him, or undertake a coup.
The press in both Pakistan and India increasingly believe a coup is possible. Pakistan suffered four coups in its first fifty years of independence. The current conditions in the country are not auspicious. They include economic decline and a crackdown on political opposition.
Previous military coups have always had specific framing: They have been about restoring order and removing corrupt politicians.
Perversely, this is a situation Khan’s campaign may have helped; his criticising the government coalition as corrupt helps create a sense of general dysfunction. But Khan has also rubbished and undermined the army. The situation has changed. As Khan’s supporters successfully fight off militarized police, people are no longer afraid of the military. Any coup, rather than meeting with acquiescence, could result in chaos, even civil war.
This is a prospect which ought to merit international attention and planning. Unpopularity has rarely phased Pakistan’s army. If it wishes to overthrow the country’s elected rulers, it will try to do so, regardless of how it looks. If Pakistan’s unsteady democracy is threatened, the West is likely to respond.
For Pakistan, the consequences could be significant. They might include sanctions, travel restrictions, seizure of assets, the possible ignominy of Pakistan losing its membership of the Commonwealth, and the certainty that Pakistan will receive no further support from financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Pakistan will then have few friends. The military, if it does successfully take power, is likely to look to China to bail it out. China does not want instability in Pakistan, a country heavily indebted to Beijing (Pakistan is the biggest recipient of loans from China’s Belt and Road initiative). And it has long-standing ties with the Pakistan military, going back to mutual antagonism toward India and the funding of the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has been within the Chinese sphere for years, with the Pakistani military underwriting this relationship. The China–Pakistan Economic Corridor is a signature project of the Belt and Road view of the world. But if the army were to launch a coup, things would become dramatically worse for Pakistan’s economy and, likewise, its citizens.
Pakistan would be desperate—ensuring that it would be truly within China’s sphere of influence, in time to take its place amid the autocracies forming part of the world’s growing, authoritarian, Beijing-led bloc.