Pakistan seems to be heading towards political confrontation following the government’s decision to ban Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s march on Islamabad. Crackdowns on the Opposition leaders and the sealing of the capital have created a highly volatile situation. The government already seems to be panicking.

The country’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan had earlier this week called upon his supporters to storm the capital. He has begun what he des­cribed as a “battle for real freedom” on May 25. He is de­m­anding the immediate dissolution of the Nat­io­nal Assembly and the announcement of an election date. He plans to gather more than a million people to bring down what he describes as an “imported go­­vernment” installed through a “foreign conspiracy”.

Whether or not Khan succeeds in his objective, the situation is becoming increasingly untenable for the present dispensation. The government’s actions could set fire to a combustible situation. That is exactly what the former Prime Minister wants.

He has already announced he will defy the government’s ban. The impending confrontation could cause the entire political edifice to collapse, raising the possibility of extra-constitutional intervention.

Khan’s narrative

Curiously, Imran Khan has warned the security establishment to stay neutral in the political fray, marking a complete turnaround from his criticism of the military leadership’s decision not to rescue his government. He has, however, urged the families of military personnel and ex-servicemen to join the march.

It is evident that he actually wants the security establishment to be on his side rather than stay neutral in the political power struggle. The campaign against the military leadership by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters seems to be a part of the effort to bring the institution under pressure. It is an extremely dangerous game that could have serious implications for the unity of the institution.

Pakistani politics has been on a roller coaster forever. But what is happening now on the country’s political stage is bizarre. Just a few months ago, before his ouster from office, Imran Khan’s popularity graph seemed to have plummeted to a new low.

Bad governance, the rising cost of living and erratic decision-making had eroded his support base. The creeping demoralisation in party ranks had triggered defections. The hybrid project had fallen apart and an epitaph was being prepared.

But within days of the vote of the no-confidence move, the situation changed dramatically. The party rose like a phoenix from the ashes. Khan’s narrative of a “foreign conspiracy”, however false, hit a chord with large sections of the population that held deep-rooted anti-American sentiments. His demagoguery weaponised nationalist emotions.

It is, however, not the only factor contributing to the exponential rise in the former prime minister’s political fortunes, as is evident by his massive public rallies. His narrative of “imported rule” that, according to him, has marked the return to power of a “tainted and tried” leadership, has proved to be extremely effective in rallying support, particularly among the urban middle classes and the youth.

The tide seems to have turned in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s favour, with the political situation getting messier. With the de-seating of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf defectors in Punjab, the fate of the newly installed Pakistan Muslim League (N) chief minister hangs in the balance. Effectively, there is no government in the country’s most powerful province.

Weak government

The situation is not very different at the Centre, where a weak coalition government is unable to take the hard decisions required to prevent the economy’s free fall. The government has decided against holding early elections and to complete the term of the National Assembly. But the situation is dicey, with growing political instability and an economy in dire straits.

What seems to have given impetus to Khan’s narrative is the growing perception that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is calling the shots from London. This view was reinforced when Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and some key cabinet ministers flew to London for consultations with the senior Sharif. The former Prime Minister has also reportedly been participating via video link in meetings on administrative issues.

All that has undermined the position of the junior Sharif. The reported differences between the brothers over the issue of early elections added to the uncertainty and has further weakened the capacity of the coalition government to take hard decisions to salvage the economy.

It has been more than six weeks since the installation of the new government, but nothing has been done to stop the financial hemorrhaging caused by subsidies. While the talks with the International Monetary Fund are on, the finance minister has reiterated that the government would not remove the subsidies on petroleum prices. The latest development has increased political uncertainty and is bound to have an adverse effect on negotiations with the Fund and diminish the possibility of getting a bailout from friendly countries.

It seems that the coalition government has decided to preside over a possible economic meltdown rather than going to the hustings. Its decision not to dissolve the Assembly also seems to have been driven by Imran Khan’s policy of confrontation. Fearful of taking any unpopular action on its own, the Sharif government is now looking toward the security establishment to help it salvage the situation.

Military’s role

There has been some talk about involving the National Security Committee in taking hard decisions on the issue of subsidies. The suggestion to seek the military’s support has further exposed the government’s incapacity in dealing with the crisis. A redundant parliament has worsened the government’s predicament, raising questions about its sustainability.

It appears that the country may be moving towards a new hybrid arrangement with a weak administration seeking the military’s support in propping it up. The latest development could put the military leadership, which is already under attack by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters, in a serious quandary. Imran Khan’s warning seems to be directed at the security establishment.

While once he himself had been propped up by the establishment, the former Prime Minister is now on the warpath against his former patrons. This situation has raised the possibility of the military getting mired more deeply in the political power game. It is perhaps the most serious crisis the country has faced in recent times.

This article first appeared in Dawn.