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What Imran Khan’s arrest means for Pakistan

The former prime minister’s arrest has escalated the country’s political crisis at a delicate moment.

Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan addresses his supporters during an anti-government march toward Islamabad, demanding early elections, in Gujranwala on November 1, 2022. 
ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former prime minister, was arrested by paramilitary troops Tuesday on corruption charges, escalating the country’s political crisis ahead of national elections later this year.

Troops entered a courthouse in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad to detain Khan, who has contested the charges as politically motivated as he seeks reelection. Pakistani officials have accused him of illegally buying land from a business tycoon while serving as prime minister, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in losses to the country’s treasury. Khan has called for protests in response to his arrest, and his many supporters answered by showing up at the corps commander’s residence in Lahore and at the army general headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Khan’s arrest contributes to several crises currently threatening Pakistan’s stability. The country is currently seeing record-high inflation and teetering on the edge of default. And there has been a recent spike in terrorist activity. But the political crisis has so far overshadowed those issues, and could lead to mass protests, experts said.

“Khan has a large, growing, and impassioned support base that has long identified his arrest as a red line. His supporters are already out in the streets and likely will stay there for some time,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. “The longer Khan is detained, the greater the chance for prolonged unrest in urban centers.”

Khan, the populist leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), one of the country’s largest political parties, was the first prime minister in the country’s history to be ousted in an April 2022 vote of no-confidence after losing favor with the political establishment and Pakistan’s military. He was voted out on grounds that he failed to deliver on his pledge to root out corruption and to lift the country’s economy out of its Covid-19 downturn.

But the former international cricket player is also a charismatic leader who has gained popularity since his ouster, capitalizing on public grievances against state corruption and repression. His supporters have been protesting for months, but their outrage has intensified as more charges have been brought against him. He’s currently the target of more than 100 cases.

“Instead of paying attention to those things, the country is really focused on this political crisis and the political instability,” said Tamanna Salikuddin, South Asia director for the US Institute of Peace. “Now, you are further paralyzed in terms of dealing with both the economic and terrorism crises. No one’s going to have any space to deal with them.”

What we know about the corruption charges against Khan

The latest charges add to multiple preexisting cases against Khan, which also involve terrorism and blasphemy charges. Khan’s guilt or innocence has yet to be established in court, but political experts note that even if he is guilty, it’s possible that the charges are politically motivated.

“I don’t want to in any way say that there may not be something there to hold him accountable for corruption,” Salikuddin said. “But that being said, you could make a case for corruption against almost every politician in Pakistan. And usually, you don’t see these cases come out until there’s a politically motivated reason.”

In Khan’s case, the motivation may be to silence one of the current government’s vocal critics. He has blamed the military for an attack at a rally that left him shot and wounded in November — allegations that it has vehemently denied. The military plays a key role in Pakistani politics, with civilian leaders often currying its favor and asking for its support on national security matters. He has also accused the current government of conspiring with the military to remove him from office.

“While the proximate cause for the arrest is a corruption case, the real reason is likely the vendetta that has embroiled Khan and the civilian and military leadership for more than a year, since his ouster,” Kugelman said. “Today’s events strengthen his victimization narrative, and in Pakistan victimization narratives can be very powerful political tools.”

While it’s certainly possible he’s the target of an opposition campaign, he has been at the center of corruption scandals and resorted to extreme means to maintain power. He tried to dissolve parliament to avoid the no-confidence vote, and there were reports that members of his inner circle were involved in a massive corruption scheme involving offshore companies and trusts that they used to hide millions of dollars in wealth. Additionally, his anti-corruption efforts (while largely legitimate) also left the government unable to function normally.

A previous court ruling kept Khan from holding office until the end of the current Pakistani National Assembly term in August. That means he would probably be free to run for reelection as prime minister in the fall, even if his arrest will keep him from physically campaigning for now. But that also depends on whether the current government can successfully use the corruption charges to make the case that he should be disqualified from running for public office yet again.

What Khan’s arrest means for Pakistan

Khan’s arrest represents a major escalation in Pakistan’s political crisis, and there might be no turning back. Some observers are calling it the country’s biggest crisis since 1971 when East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

Democracy in Pakistan is potentially at stake. After decades of military rule in Pakistan, there was a democratic consolidation starting in 2008. But there are now fears that political unrest could lead to a dramatic, anti-democratic intervention, such as a military coup.

“It’s hard to see how the political situation deescalates now; this is a very dangerous development and dashes any hopes for Pakistan’s political stability,” said Madiha Afzal, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Kugelman said that the government could use extended unrest as a potential pretext to delay national elections currently scheduled for October. But that could also “backfire because the unrest would likely intensify in reaction to a decision to postpone polls,” he said.

And there’s a question as to whether Khan’s supporters will accept the results of the elections if he loses or is disqualified from running.

“Would his supporters actually accept the legitimacy of the elections? Would they come out to the streets to protest? I think that’s a very likely scenario,” Salikuddin said.