On March 14, Lahore was the site of violent clashes between police and supporters of Imran Khan. Tear gas, bricks, sticks, and petrol bombs filled the air in the Zaman Park residential area. As political observers watched, they wondered if this was “the moment” – a decisive point that could lead to martial law, countrywide rioting, or a stand down from a standoff. The question sought clarity, either an escalation or a concession to follow the rules of politics or the law of the land.
The police were following a court order to ensure Khan’s presence for a hearing. Members of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party had been encamped around his Zaman Park residence in Lahore to protect him from arrest for months. The police were armed with tear gas and sticks, while PTI supporters had petrol bombs and bricks.
Khan has been selective about which court summons to obey, citing security concerns since an assassination attempt last October. On March 17, Khan decided he would walk with hundreds of followers to the Lahore High Court to seek anticipatory bail.
Dozens of cases have been filed against Khan – some serious, most politically motivated. It is an excessive number of cases, even against a politician who has opted for the path of most resistance to being removed from power.
Khan is not following the normative rules of politics in Pakistan. Most political leaders will choose to go to jail. It is a colonial tradition carried over into a post-colonial state that has not been able to evolve into a fully functioning democracy, so it is seen as a political rite of passage through the decades.
The normal arbiters – such as the military establishment and the higher courts – have become divided into politicised factions. Khan’s party exited the lower house of parliament, where in a normal democracy, political contestations are sorted. Chaos is the new normal.
In an interview with Voice of America, Khan reluctantly conceded that the “one man” calling the shots is the current army chief, General Asim Munir. His reluctance emanates from a strategy where he seeks the approval of the army establishment behind closed doors but uses metaphors to attack military officers when it suits his political strategy.
By using formidable propaganda tactics that tap into young Pakistan’s sense of disenfranchisement, Khan has found an answer to traditional power centres, as evidenced by how his supporters resisted his arrest.
But what does this mean for the upcoming elections? Will they prove to be a magic cure-all? It does not seem likely given the lessons learned from Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters in 2020 and then in 2023.
Perhaps the Zaman Park resistance was a foreshadowing. Given its fragile economy and divided polity, can Pakistan afford another disputed transfer of power?
The current breakdown of the political process is not normal. Therefore, before elections, past and present grievances need to be settled between political parties, the judiciary and the military with an understanding of the rules of the game by the constitution.
Without a grand reconciliation, elections will merely be performative.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.