Protests spread across Pakistan as police attempted to arrest opposition leader Imran Khan, with the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif struggling to restore calm.
Law enforcement clashed with protesters loyal to Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party outside his home in central Lahore on Wednesday, following an unsuccessful attempt to detain the former prime minister on Tuesday night.
His supporters outside the compound threw stones at police, who used tear gas, armoured vehicles and water cannons in an attempt to contain protests. The PTI alleged the compound was under “attack”.
Khan, who was ousted in a no-confidence vote last year, has for months been locked in a bitter political stand-off with Sharif’s government, which is grappling with a deep economic crisis.
Many analysts believe Khan will be the most popular candidate if he is allowed to stand in national elections, which are due to be held by October, but he faces a barrage of legal challenges. If convicted, he could be barred from holding public office.
The attempt to arrest Khan stems from allegations that he unlawfully sold gifts he received while serving as prime minister from 2018 to 2022. Pakistan’s election commission has found that he breached rules, and a court in Islamabad ordered Khan’s arrest after he failed to show up at a hearing. Khan blamed security concerns for his non-attendance.
Khan and his supporters say he has not breached any rules, describing the allegations as an attempt to remove him from the running ahead of polls. “They believe that by arresting Imran Khan, you will fall asleep,” Khan said on Twitter, addressing his followers. “You must prove them wrong.”
In Islamabad, protesters briefly tried to block the main road linking the Pakistani capital to the neighbouring city of Rawalpindi. There were more protests in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, and Peshawar.
Shireen Mazari, a senior PTI leader, told the Financial Times the party would intensify its demonstrations if Khan was arrested. “If he is taken into custody, there will be more protests,” she said. “The situation will only aggravate.”
The political tension has been exacerbated by Pakistan’s economic pain. The country is grappling with one of its deepest financial crises in history, a product of domestic mismanagement, high inflation and soaring commodity prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
An index measuring inflation of everyday items earlier this month crossed 40 per cent, and the country’s foreign reserves are down to about $4bn, enough for only a month’s worth of imports.
Sharif’s government has tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a bailout with the IMF. This month, Pakistan’s central bank raised its lending rate by 300 basis points to 20 per cent, the highest in Asia, a critical IMF condition.
But the government has resisted other conditions demanded by the IMF, which have included raising taxes and cutting energy subsidies, arguing that they are politically unviable ahead of elections.