Tensions between former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan and the current coalition government are coming to a head.
Khan made a speech in the northern city of Rawalpindi near Islamabad on Sunday, August 21, seeking a return to office after losing a no-confidence vote in April and being ousted as prime minister. Just hours beforehand, Pakistan’s electronic media regulator prohibited Khan’s rallies from being broadcast live on all satellite TV channels.
As he started his address, which was being broadcast on social media, YouTube experienced “disruptions”. This prompted Khan to accuse the government of attempting to silence him.
Following this, Pakistani police laid charges of terrorism against Khan for comments he had made in a speech about the judiciary a day earlier in Islamabad.
Previously, the government had been quite permissive of Khan’s rallies, but this approach appears to have changed.
So how did we get here?
Since March this year, even before he was ousted, Khan has held numerous rallies, gatherings and social media activities to present his narrative to the Pakistani people locally and overseas.
He has accused, without evidence, the coalition government of working at the behest of the United States. He has labelled the government an “imported government” and popularised the hashtag “imported government na Manzoor” (the imported government is unacceptable).
Khan has also levelled varying degrees of criticism against the judiciary, bureaucracy and media for enabling the coalition government’s return to power in April.
In contrast, he portrays himself as a good Muslim, someone who is following in the footsteps of the founder of the country, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and as being knowledgeable about the West, honest and incorruptible.
He believes he’s different from the government, which he denounces as corrupt “thieves”, and that he can lead the people of Pakistan in their struggle for true independence. He has urged young people and others to wage the struggle for “haqiqi azadi” (real independence).
The often well-choreographed rallies feature music by renowned musicians and singers, and appearances by popular actors. The appeal of this narrative is obvious in the thousands of Pakistanis of all ages and backgrounds attending these rallies.
Khan’s speeches are broadcast on social media, including YouTube and Twitter, with the Pakistani diaspora following these developments.
The government’s changing stance
Since coming to power in April, the coalition government has allowed almost all of these rallies to take place.
One exception was Khan’s May 25 “independence march”, when his supporters marched to Islamabad to call for new elections. The government had attempted to shut down the march, but the Supreme Court overturned the ban. Media reported some clashes between police and Khan’s supporters, with police firing teargas and detaining some protesters.
There are two possible explanations for the government’s mostly permissive approach to Khan’s rallies. The first is that it’s keen to demonstrate its democratic credentials.
The second is that the military – which was instrumental in removing Khan from power – thought Khan’s popularity would run its course and decline over time, so there was no need to intervene especially given the support for Khan’s party apparent among some retired military officials. But that didn’t happen.
Khan’s criticism of the regime became more strident. His references to the “neutrals”, a euphemism for the military establishment, became increasingly pronounced. Calling upon the “neutrals” to see the light and return power to the rightful representatives, Khan implied the military had supported his ouster and needed to mend its ways. Coupled with his increasing popularity despite his own government’s poor performance, such references fuelled anti-military sentiment that has swept across social media.
A Pakistan Army helicopter crash on August 1 in the province of Balochistan killed six military officials. This unfortunately led to anti-military groups stoking speculation online that the military itself had orchestrated the crash, and that military hardware was more precious than the military officials lost.
The leadership of Khan’s party denied any connection to the widely circulating anti-military tweets. But within days of this denial, Khan’s chief of staff read a controversial statement on the ARY television network that authorities claim was seditious and amounted to an incitement of mutiny within the armed forces.
The terrorism charges, along with Pakistan’s electronic media regulator banning live broadcast of his rallies, show Pakistani authorities are coming down firmly on Khan. They are now attempting to deny Khan the ability to mobilise masses against the judiciary, law enforcement agencies and the military. Time will tell whether this will be successful. But there are ominous signs of impending instability.