Pakistan in ‘perilous situation’ after Imran assassination bid

The assassination attempt on former prime minister Imran Khan and his accusation it was a plot involving a senior military officers has pushed Pakistan into a “dangerous phase”, analysts say.

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Imran escaped with bullet wounds to his legs from an assassination attempt Thursday as he led supporters on a highly publicized march to the capital to press for early elections.

He claimed Friday that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, and a senior military officer plotted to have him killed and have it blamed on “a religious fanatic”.

“The political situation in Pakistan has entered into a dangerous phase,” said academic and political analyst Tauseef Ahmed Khan, who is also a board member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

“In a country with a history of political chaos, the sounds echo.”

Despite being ousted by a vote of no-confidence in April, Imran retains mass public support – winning a string of by-elections even as he battles a slew of legal cases brought by the current government.

As the pressure rises, the government’s dependence on the country’s “deep state” – a term often used to refer to the powerful military – for its survival is increasing, Ahmed Khan said.

“It is a perilous situation – not only for the democratic process but also for the country – especially with regards to economic development,” he said.

“The issue(s) of poverty, hunger, and development fall into the background.”

At each other’s throats

Imran and Shehbaz have been at each other’s throats for months, trading accusations of incompetence and corruption with language and tone dripping with contempt.

But such a public accusation by Imran, and the naming of a senior military officer, has taken the situation to a new level of crisis.

Imran has offered no evidence to back his claims, which the government has dismissed as “lies and fabrications”.

Criticism of the military -– which has ruled the country for roughly half of its 75-year history -– has always been a red line, but Khan has been increasingly outspoken against a security establishment many say backed his original rise to power.

On Friday, the military’s press wing issued a statement urging the government to take Khan to court for defamation.

Officials from Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party could also be in the crosshairs.

Senior party members have already been charged with “sedition” and other offences since Khan’s ouster, as have journalists considered sympathetic to the former PM.

“It seems that now some sort of operation might be launched against PTI,” said analyst Ahmed Khan, adding there was a risk the party could fragment.

As Imrans huge rallies are designed to prove – to both his political opposition and the military – that he has the support of the public, the results could be “chaos, despair, and disappointment”, he added.

In such a charged atmosphere, multiple accusations and denials from both sides are unlikely to ever be properly probed, said Karachi-based political analyst Kaiser Bengali.

That, he added, leaves room for conspiracy theories to abound.

“The state has lost its legitimacy… police, law and order institutions – even the judiciary,” he said.

What went wrong

Bengali said the military was now “sitting and wondering what went wrong and what can they do”.

The government has said the assassination bid against Khan was “a very clear case of religious extremism”, blaming a lone gunman who hailed from a poor village.

Pakistan has long grappled with Islamist militancy, with right-wing religious groups having huge sway over the population in the Muslim-majority country.

Imran and his PTI have been accused in the past of stoking religious sentiments to appeal to a wider support base.

“Religious extremism is a weapon which the PTI use – and so do the army and the state,” said Bengali. “So we are heading towards an immensely dangerous situation.”

Behind the political crisis, however, hides a more pervasive one: the economy.

“The state is bankrupt, whatever resources it has are consumed in debt servicing and defence, and the government salaries,” Bengali said.

“Whatever crumbs are available is what the politicians are fighting over… that is why the fight has become so petty.”

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