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


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

Political observers have asked themselves this question several times in Pakistan’s history. “The moment” could be martial law, nationwide riots, a decisive operation leading to more violence, or a withdrawal from a stalemate. The question seeks clarity, either an escalation or a concession to follow the rules of the country’s politics or law.

The battle took place because the 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 camped around his Zaman Park residence in Lahore to protect him from arrest for months. Police were armed with tear gas and batons. PTI trailers with petrol bombs and stones.

In the end, more police officers were injured than supporters. “Khan is our red line” has been the rallying cry for months as police brutalized Khan’s followers during a March 8 protest that left a political official dead.

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 that he would walk with hundreds of followers to the Lahore High Court to seek early bail.

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

He is not the first in the country’s history: politicians and political parties who come into contact with the military establishment are removed and eventually find that resistance is futile. But then Khan does not follow the normative rules of politics in Pakistan.

Most political leaders will choose to go to prison. It is a colonial tradition carried over to a post-colonial state that has failed 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 husband Asif Ali Zardari, to Nawaz Sharif, to Maryam Nawaz Sharif.

The irony is that Khan has tried to use colonial resistance tactics to provoke elections – his main demand since leaving the Prime Minister’s office in April 2022 following a vote of no confidence. He ordered a “prison bharo tehreek”, or “fill the prisons movement”, in February for workers and second-class leadership. Dozens went to jail, while Khan was granted preventive bail for his various trials and fizzled out the move.

A few days later, after the clashes in Zaman Park, the answer to the question “is now the time” has been made clear – there is still no clarity, no easy way out of the chaos.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has offered dialogue, while Khan has indicated willingness. But each waits for the other to take the first step. In recent years, ordinary political rivalries have turned into deep-seated enmities. The normal arbiters – such as the military establishment and the higher courts – have become divided into politicized factions. Khan’s party left the lower house of parliament, where political disputes are resolved in a normal democracy. Chaos is the new normal.

“Right-wing populism pokes around 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 in a phase where anarchy is a cross between populism and authoritarianism. What form remains to be seen, be it civil, military, or just military.

Who’s in charge?

In an interview with Voice of America, Khan reluctantly admitted that the current army chief, General Asim Munir, is in charge. His reluctance stems from a strategy where he seeks the military’s approval 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 received from within the military as he ascended to the prime ministership in 2018, and an acknowledgment of where de facto power lies in Pakistan.

For example, last year Khan was prepared to offer former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa a third extension of his term of office in exchange for early elections. There will be elections in Pakistan in October. After Bajwa refused, Khan accused the former army chief of conspiring with the US to overthrow him and called for a court-martial. While prime minister, Khan had described Bajwa as “the most democratic army chief”.

As commentator Raza Rumi has written: “The social classes that inhabit non-elected institutions share Mr Khan’s weltanschauung, which consists of displays of public religiosity, hatred towards traditional political elites, citing ‘corruption’ as the main problem , and a handy, varying dose of anti-religiosity. -Americanism. That is why Mr. Khan is a formidable enemy of the Ancien Regime. He is their creature and mortal enemy at the same time.”

Using formidable propaganda tactics that play on young Pakistan’s sense of disenfranchisement, Khan has found an answer to the traditional centers of power, as evidenced by the way his supporters resist his arrest.

But what does this mean for the upcoming elections? Will they prove to be a panacea? It doesn’t seem likely given the lessons learned from the supporters of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in 2020 and then 2023. Perhaps the resistance in Zaman Park was foreshadowing. Given its fragile economy and divided state system, can Pakistan afford another contested transfer of power?

In his editorialwrote the country’s leading newspaper, the Dawn: “The democratic election process, which is supposed to act as the safety valve for the public’s pent-up emotions, remains in limbo, and this is perhaps why more people feel the need to act violently to make their wishes known to the state.”

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

Without a major reconciliation, elections will be merely performative.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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