Pakistani police attempt to arrest former Prime Minister Imran Khan

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan

Pakistani police showed up Tuesday at the home of former Prime Minister Imran Khan in Lahore, apparently with the intention of arresting him, in a sharp escalation of political tensions in the country.

Khan was facing new arrest warrants as he continues his strident campaign to force an election, nearly a year after he was ousted in a vote of no confidence. On Twitter, his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), urged his supporters to hurry to the Zaman Park residence, but “remain calm.” The situation quickly deteriorated as the growing crowd slowed the officers’ advance.

Footage showed supporters blocking the entrances to his home and throwing stones. The police reportedly resorted to the use of batons and tear gas as a helicopter flew over Zaman Park.

In a video message posted on Khan’s Twitter account, the ousted prime minister said police had come to arrest him. “They think that if Imran Khan goes to jail, the masses will fall asleep,” he said. “You have to show them that they are wrong.”

Khan implored his supporters to keep fighting regardless of Tuesday’s outcome. “If something happens to me, if I go to jail or get killed, you have to show that even without Imran Khan this nation will continue to fight.”

The Associated Press reported that officers had still not arrested Khan hours into the police operation and left at midnight.

Since being ousted as prime minister in April 2022, Khan has aimed to disrupt the coalition government led by his successor, Shehbaz Sharif, and trigger early elections. On Monday, the cricket star-turned-Islamist politician led a huge rally in Lahore, riding in an armored car, threading his way through thousands of PTI supporters. On the same day, separate courts issued two warrants for Khan’s detention without bail after he ignored the summonses.

After surviving an apparent assassination attempt during a protest march last November, Khan has refused to appear in court citing health and safety concerns. On Tuesday, a court temporarily stayed one of the arrest warrants, and the Islamabad High Court was scheduled to hear the PTI’s petition against another of the warrants on Wednesday. But Khan’s fate remained uncertain as police descended on him and his supporters confronted her.

Pakistani Home Minister Rana Sanaullah tweeted that the “person who fled from the court” would be arrested. Khan reportedly formed a committee of senior PTI leaders to deal with party affairs and decide on the next course of action in case he was arrested.

Reuters quoted a government spokesman as blaming the PTI for instigating the violence. “If Imran Khan guarantees his presence in court, it will be good; otherwise, the law will take its course,” the spokesperson stated.

Khan has previously faced arrest warrants and attempted arrests, including a similar incident in which he prevented a raid on his Lahore residence. The latest warrants were aimed at taking him to court later this month over gifts from the state and comments threatening a judge.

Khan faces a range of charges, including allegedly concealing state gifts held at the Toshakhana, a repository for items received from foreign governments. Both he and his supporters insist the accusations are politically motivated.

While Khan wants new elections, the government is mired in a deepening economic crisis and has insisted that national elections must be held in October, as scheduled. The ruling alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement, argues that conditions are not conducive to holding elections as the country scrambles to avoid financial default and has faced a wave of terrorist attacks by the Taliban. locals and other militant groups.

But now the political tensions are even higher after Khan dissolved two provincial assemblies as part of a strategy to stimulate the local and, by extension, national vote. Police and PTI supporters also clashed at another rally in Lahore last week, with the political party claiming one of its activists had been killed. Khan claimed that it was a case of “custodial torture”, while police called it a “traffic accident”.

Experts suggest that any crackdown on Khan could backfire. “It would be a high-stakes gamble for the state to try to sideline Khan,” Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute, said ahead of Tuesday’s events. “He is a masterful populist who knows how to capitalize on the grievances of his growing base of support. … If the state cracks down on him, this could just make him more popular.”

Polls show he doesn’t need much help in that regard: A Gallup poll released last week gave Khan a 61% approval rating, while his opponents trailed at 36%.

However, while the government seems to have few good options, it is also clear that Khan has a lot at stake. The former prime minister faces dozens of charges, including charges related to terrorism, criticism of state institutions, illicit foreign political financing, failure to declare a dependent child and failure to declare income from the sale of Toshakhana gifts.

“Misdeclaration [of assets], intentional or not, can obviously lead to disqualification” for the policy, said Osama Malik, an Islamabad-based lawyer. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the brother of the current Prime Minister, was disqualified on similar grounds, albeit under a different article of the Constitution.

Khan himself was disqualified as a member of the National Assembly by the election commission over the issue of state gifts last October. The PTI appealed this decision to the Islamabad High Court, which did not suspend the order, but declared that Khan was free to stand in future elections. Khan ran and won the by-election.

Currently, all eyes are on two upcoming provincial elections that Sharif’s government would prefer to delay.

The PTI, which controlled the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, dissolved those assemblies in January. Since the constitution requires elections to be held within 90 days of dissolution, the idea seems to have been for the cash-strapped government to relent and hold national elections at the same time to save money.

Last month, the Ministry of Finance rejected the electoral agency’s request to release all the funds for the provincial elections. But the Supreme Court ruled this month that the elections must go ahead. Chairman Arif Alvi of Khan’s PTI has called for Punjab’s election to be held on April 30, after the central government hesitated to set a date. The date of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa elections has not yet been announced.

As prospects for the provincial elections remain uncertain, analysts say another key question is how the powerful Pakistani military views the political crisis.

The PTI has appealed to the masses by loudly accusing Pakistan’s political elite of corruption and former army chief General Qamar Bajwa of orchestrating Khan’s ouster. “Pakistani politics hasn’t been this polarized in a long time, and it’s clear the military is not going to quickly forgive Khan for all the accusations and vitriol he has directed at army leadership for nearly a year,” said Kugelman, of the Wilson Center.

He also pointed to the history of bad blood between Khan and the new army chief, General Syed Asim Munir, who was sacked as spy chief when Khan was prime minister.

At Monday’s rally in Lahore, Khan toned down some of his rhetoric, avoiding criticism of the judiciary and the military. But he did not seem to have any intention of giving up, neither in court nor before his opponents. He announced another big rally in Lahore for this weekend.