Pakistan in 'perilous situation' after Khan assassination bid

Pakistan's former PM Imran Khan talks with journalists at Shaukat Khanum hospital in Lahore, Pakistan, on Nov 4, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KARACHI - The assassination attempt on former prime minister Imran Khan and his accusation that it was a plot involving a senior intelligence officer has pushed Pakistan into a “dangerous phase”, analysts say.

Mr Khan escaped with bullet wounds to his legs from an assassination attempt last Thursday as he led supporters on a highly publicised march to the capital to press for early elections.

He claimed on Friday that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and Major-General Faisal Nasir – an intelligence officer – plotted to have him killed and have it blamed on “a religious fanatic”.

“The political situation in Pakistan has entered into a dangerous phase,” said academic and political analyst Tauseef Ahmed Khan, who is also a board member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

“In a country with a history of political chaos, the sounds echo.”

In a press conference on Saturday, Mr Sharif offered to resign if there was any evidence implicating him or his interior minister in the shooting and said he would lose the right to continue as prime minister if any evidence against him was uncovered. 

“I request the Chief Justice of Pakistan to constitute a full court commission for the best interest of the nation, sake of justice, and to end this mess,” said Mr Sharif. “If the Supreme Court remains quiet after this, then it will be a great damage to this country.”

The government formed a panel of legal and constitutional experts to investigate the claims and will take action against Mr Khan and his colleagues if those are not true, according to a statement from Mr Sharif’s office.

Mr Khan said on Sunday he welcomed the government’s offer to launch a judicial commission. He said his supporters’ long march towards the capital calling for early elections, which was disrupted by the attack, would restart on Tuesday but that he would not join in person while he recovered from his injuries.

Despite being ousted by a vote of no-confidence in April, Mr Khan retains mass public support – winning a string of by-elections even as he battles a slew of legal cases brought by the current government.

As the pressure rises, the government’s dependence on the country’s “deep state” – a term often used to refer to the powerful military – for its survival is increasing, Mr Ahmed Khan said.

“It is a perilous situation – not only for the democratic process but also for the country – especially with regard to economic development,” he said.

“The issue(s) of poverty, hunger, and development fall into the background.”

Mr Khan and Mr Sharif have been at each other’s throats for months, trading accusations of incompetence and corruption with language and tone dripping with contempt.

But such a public accusation by Mr Khan, and the naming of a senior military officer, has taken the situation to a new level of crisis.

Mr Khan has offered no evidence to back his claims, which the government has dismissed as “lies and fabrications”.

Criticism of the military – which has ruled the country for roughly half of its 75-year history – has always been a red line, but Mr Khan has been increasingly outspoken against a security establishment many say backed his original rise to power.

On Friday, the military’s press wing issued a statement urging the government to take Mr Khan to court for defamation.

Officials from Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party could also be in the cross hairs.

Senior party members have already been charged with “sedition” and other offences since Mr Khan’s ouster, as have journalists considered sympathetic to the former PM. “It seems that now some sort of operation might be launched against PTI,” said analyst Ahmed Khan, adding that there was a risk the party could fragment.

As Mr Khan’s huge rallies are designed to prove – to both his political opposition and the military – that he has the support of the public, the results could be “chaos, despair, and disappointment”, he added.

Supporters of former Pakistan PM Imran Khan take part in a protest in Lahore on Nov 5, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

In such a charged atmosphere, multiple accusations and denials from both sides are unlikely to ever be properly probed, said Karachi-based political analyst Kaiser Bengali.

That, he added, leaves room for conspiracy theories to abound.

“The state has lost its legitimacy... police, law and order institutions – even the judiciary,” he said.

Mr Bengali said the military was now “sitting and wondering what went wrong and what can they do”.

The government has said the assassination bid against Mr Khan was “a very clear case of religious extremism”, blaming a lone gunman who hailed from a poor village.

Pakistan has long grappled with Islamist militancy, with right-wing religious groups having huge sway over the population in the Muslim-majority country.

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Mr Khan and his PTI have been accused in the past of stoking religious sentiments to appeal to a wider support base.

“Religious extremism is a weapon which the PTI use – and so do the army and the state,” said Mr Bengali. “So we are heading towards an immensely dangerous situation.”

Behind the political crisis, however, hides a more pervasive one: the economy.

“The state is bankrupt, whatever resources it has are consumed in debt servicing and defence, and the government salaries,” Mr Bengali said.

“Whatever crumbs are available is what the politicians are fighting over ... that is why the fight has become so petty.” AFP, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

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