Asfandyar Mir at USIP summarizes the current state of play:
“Four developments will significantly shape politics in Pakistan and determine the prospects of stability in the near term.
- Judicial intervention. The Supreme Court’s order to release Khan adds to tensions between the army and the court. The army had signaled its intent to hold the PTI leadership, including Khan, to account for the violence against military installations, so the release order, by offering reprieve to Khan and the PTI, dilutes the army’s plan. The court’s intervention may also shield Khan in future legal proceedings as judges are sensitive to cues from the Supreme Court’s chief justice. That could frustrate military leaders and push them to consider emergency measures, perhaps even direct intervention.
- Military cohesion. Khan’s future prospects and the government and the military’s ability to counter the PTI also depend, in great measure, on the military establishment’s cohesion. Pakistan’s military establishment, generally composed of senior officers in the army and intelligence services, has shown no overt signs of fracture, but the past year has included signs of its cohesion being under pressure. Khan and his party have significant support in military elite networks; retired military officers have been extremely critical of the establishment’s approach and its decision to distance itself from Khan since last year. Amid the widespread protests and judicial intervention, senior military leadership may be under pressure to de-escalate current tensions and take an off-ramp from the crackdown against the PTI. On the other hand, the sense of embarrassment and breach of honor due to PTI supporters’ attacks against military installations could create a “rally around the flag” effect, and Khan’s support within the military’s elite networks may begin to diminish. The military’s cohesion remains important to watch.
- Level of violence. An important factor will be the scale of violence. The government, in coordination with the military, has launched a major crackdown against the PTI for inciting and directing violence. While Khan’s release immediately eased popular anger, a re-arrest, which is possible, could revive protests. If protesters target military personnel and installations again, the crackdown could become more severe. Terrorist violence by the Pakistani Taliban, which has been surging, also could add to the instability. In general, more agitation and violence can trigger emergency measures, including countrywide curfews. That will also push the country towards a direct military intervention. But if the protests persist beyond those emergency measures, Khan may prevail, and the government and military could back off.
- Economic crisis. A wild card is Pakistan’s precarious economic situation. Pakistan has been muddling through a balance of payments crisis, and in the next few months, it has major repayments due to its multilateral, private and bilateral lenders. To manage these repayments and avert a default, Pakistan foremost needs rollover and refinanced loans of a couple of billion dollars from China. Pakistan is also looking to revive a program of loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which remains stalled due to Pakistan not meeting the IMF’s conditions. The crisis will make it harder for Pakistan to convince the IMF — and possibly even Chinese leadership, which publicly called for political stability in the country — to provide the help necessary to avert default and keep the economy afloat. The narrow path for Pakistan to avert economic collapse has narrowed further.”