Khan bears the lion’s share of blame for the crisis. Accused of economic mismanagement and toppled in a no-confidence vote in April, he has since kept up a steady stream of attacks on the coalition government that replaced him, calling tens of thousands of supporters into the streets to demand early elections. Matters escalated in August when one of Khan’s top aides went on TV to warn lower-ranking military officers against following unlawful orders from their superiors, which was taken as incitement to mutiny. The aide was charged with sedition and claims to have been tortured in custody, which the government denies. The TV station that aired his comments was forced off the air.
Khan then threatened to retaliate against police officers and a judge involved in the case, prompting a complaint against him under draconian anti-terrorism statutes. He faces a hearing on those charges today, even as he seeks to fend off a possible contempt of court case. If convicted, he could be barred from politics and possibly jailed, like several former Pakistani leaders.
Khan can’t pretend to be a model democrat. Army backing is widely thought to have helped smooth his ascent in 2018. His government is accused of targeting critics in the media and civil society, and he employed dubious parliamentary maneuvers to try to derail the no-confidence vote. Since losing power, he has stoked populist fury with unfounded conspiracy theories accusing the US of orchestrating his removal. He welcomed the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and embraced Vladimir Putin the day of the Ukraine invasion.
Even so, the government’s hardline response could well turn Khan into a martyr. Many legal analysts think the terrorism charges against him are excessive. Repressing media outlets further weakens free speech in the country. Banning Khan from politics outright would only prompt greater turmoil, cynicism and instability.
Instead, both sides should work to turn down the temperature.
For his part, Khan needs to better respect the law and the constitutional process. If he wants to battle the government on policy, he should re-enter parliament along with his fellow party members rather than continuing to boycott the institution. His party should test its popularity by continuing to contest by-elections, which have yielded several notable victories recently, and should demonstrate its skill at governing in the provinces it controls instead of using them to harass the central government.
In return, the government should be willing to play fair. It should enforce the law but not pursue trumped-up cases in the misguided hope of expelling Khan from the political system. Instead, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his ministers should focus first on emergency efforts to deal with the floods and food shortages, then on stabilizing the economy and cushioning the blow of austerity measures. The best way to counter Khan’s appeal isn’t to attack him — which only feeds his narrative of persecution — but to outperform him.
Most important, the army needs to let civilian leaders get on with the task of governing. Its political meddling — a perpetual problem — only encourages politicians to focus on the brass rather than citizens; part of the reason Khan is fighting so hard for early elections is because the prime minister will appoint the next army chief in November. Meanwhile, repeated cycles of political instability undermine the economy and impede effective governance. Pakistan’s leaders should know this game by now — well enough to understand no one wins.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Why Pakistan Can’t Afford Another Political Crisis: Mihir Sharma
• Modi’s India Risks Making the Case for Partition: Nisid Hajari
• What If India and Pakistan Actually Got Along?: Tyler Cowen
The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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