The government’s latest attempt to arrest Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan signals a big change in the state’s policy toward ongoing political developments in the country.
Last week, an Islamabad court issued non-bailable arrest warrants for Khan over his failure to appear in the Toshakhana case, where he is accused of mis-declaring the value of gifts he received while prime minister. In this regard, a team of the Islamabad police was sent to Lahore on Sunday to arrest him from his Zaman Park residence. After initially being told that Khan was still sleeping, police were turned away by PTI leader Shibli Faraz, who said the party chief was not “available.” While the police were waiting on Khan’s status, the party called on its supporters to gather at the site, triggering now-routine scenes of PTI workers yelling themselves hoarse to discourage the lawful detention. Further establishing the whole situation as a farce was the “unavailable” Khan delivering a speech outside Zaman Park within an hour of the police returning to the federal capital.
The PTI wrapped up its “Jail Bharo” movement last week after disappointing results, managing less than 500 voluntary arrests in a week despite earlier promising to deliver 200 party leaders and workers courting arrest daily across Pakistan in a bid to secure a date for elections in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. It is widely believed that a core reason for the movement’s failure was Khan’s unwillingness to be arrested himself, hiding behind workers and subordinate party leaders.
Khan’s speech outside Zaman Park after evading arrest, meanwhile, triggered a new approach from the government, with the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) imposing an “immediate” blanket ban on any broadcasts of his speeches on public and private channels. In a statement, PEMRA accused Khan of “levelling baseless allegations and spreading hate speech through his provocative statements against state institutions and officers which is prejudicial to the maintenance of law and order and is likely to disturb public peace and tranquility.” Observers see this as the launch of a new—and potentially final—phase in Khan’s confrontation with the government.
It is no surprise that despite public support, Khan is no longer the ‘blue-eyed boy’ of the security establishment. Fears persist within state institutions of the ousted premier being ill-suited to resolve the economic and political crises facing the country. His accusations of incompetence against the ruling coalition go down well with the general public suffering the prevailing economic crisis, but not with institutions who don’t want to see Pakistan internationally isolated. Unfortunately, like most populist leaders, Imran Khan’s discourse is extremely isolationist and spells trouble for a Pakistan that can no longer afford to lose any of the few remaining “friends” it retains in the global community.