Pakistan: Escalating Political Unrest

The political crisis is intensifying in Pakistan after Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Fawad Chaudhry was arrested in the early hours of January 25. The arrest followed Chaudhry’s public criticism of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government for allegedly planning to arrest former prime minister and PTI chief, Imran Khan. He was sent on a two-day physical remand in Islamabad and later given a 14- day judicial remand in a case over alleged incitement of violence against a constitutional institution. Chaudhry belongs to the inner circle of Imran Khan, and it is speculated that his arrest is just a precursor of what is coming next for other top rung PTI leaders.

More importantly, Chaudhry’s arrest has strongly signaled that Pakistan’s powerful military establishment may not support Imran Khan and his party in the upcoming provincial elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Army chief General Asim Munir is possibly betting on the PDM alliance to stabilise the dwindling economy. For Khan, options for his political survival now include hitting the streets again and garner enough public support to win elections or successfully negotiate with the security establishment and become their ‘loyal’ political pawn.

A First Information Report (FIR) was registered against Chaudhry under sections 153-A (promotion of enmity between groups), 506 (criminal intimidation), 505 (statement conducing to public mischief) and 124-A (sedition) of the Pakistan Penal Code at Islamabad’s Kohsar Police Station. According to the FIR, Chaudhry threatened the election commissioner and members of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), as well as their families, with retaliation if any “unjust” actions were taken against PTI after their appointments. It also stated that Chaudhry attempted to “obstruct” the state election process.

Chaudhary’s arrest was broadcasted live on several Pakistani media channels. The unwanted publicity has given the PTI an opportunity to claim that they are being targeted by the PDM government and the newly appointed caretaker regime in Punjab. Pakistan’s Election Commission has also been pulled into the middle of the controversy, instead of focusing on preparations for elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. The way Chaudhry was arrested, and the subsequent charges of sedition on him, is not surprising at all. The Imran Khan government used the same draconian approach to target the opposition political leaders until April last year. Nevertheless, the PDM government’s ‘tit-for-tat’ tactic against PTI will only exacerbate the ongoing political turmoil and public discontent in Pakistan.

Following Chaudhry’s arrest on January 25, Imran Khan called on Pakistan’s judiciary to protect the fundamental rights of his party leaders. Khan made it clear that he would continue challenging the people behind his controversial ouster from power. He warned that, “If someone thinks that I will accept their slavery, I want to clarify that I will challenge them till my last breath.”Khan further stated that the way in which Chaudhry is being treated – “abducted, treated like a terrorist, and given physical remand on a false FIR” – is indicative of the issues currently plaguing the country. Reportedly, Chaudhry’s arrest came amidst rumours that the PDM government was planning Imran Khan’s arrest. It is noteworthy that general elections in Pakistan are due after August this year. However, Khan is demanding snap polls.

On January 26, the President of Pakistan Dr Arif Alvi said in a media interview that if Imran Khan is arrested by the PDM coalition government, it will create instability in the country. He said, “The government will be playing with fire if it resorts to arresting Imran. ”Answering another question, Alvi stated that the ‘minus-Imran Khan’ formula can never succeed, as he has the massive public support. He said, “No government or political party can survive without public support. Therefore, such efforts will never succeed.” These remarks are also an attempt to consolidate Imran Khan’s control over his party and end rumours that the PTI was looking for Khan’s alternative to improve relations with the military establishment.

The sudden arrest of Chaudhry led to widespread condemnation from journalists, whocalled for his release. Many senior journalists, political analysts, and members of civil society expressed their concerns on social media about the detention of the former Information Minister and urged the government to avoid escalating the political situation. Senior journalist Mazhar Abbas questioned the rationale behind Chaudhry’s arrest, asking: “What have they achieved so far in the cases of Azam Swati, Shahbaz Gill or in the cases against journalists?”Former PPP senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar said that the ECP has become so “touchy” that it is filing police complaints over politicians’ statements. He said, “Such actions will damage what is left of its reputation.”

Many commentators believe that Chaudhry’s arrest is the PDM government’s deliberate tactic to distract people from the real issues plaguing the country. This event highlights the government’s incompetence to create effective laws, failure to address economic crisis, and refusal to hold free and fair elections. For PTI, Fawad’s detention is a good excuse to play the ‘victim’ card and garner the public support. In all this, Pakistan is facing more political unrest amidst failing economy.