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Will Pakistan ban Imran Khan's PTI party?

S Khan in Islamabad
May 22, 2023

An unprecedented crackdown against Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has prompted concerns that it could be outlawed. DW looks at whether a possible ban would be more likely to hurt or help the former PM.

Former Pakistan PM Imran Khan
A showdown between Pakistan's military and the country's most popular political leader could push the nation to the brink of chaosImage: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Any attempt to dissolve the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party would likely plunge Pakistan into a deeper political crisis — not to mention boost the former prime minister's popularity, analysts have warned.

Police have arrested more than 7,500 PTI members and supporters since Khan's arrest on May 9 triggered deadly riots and attacks on Pakistani military installations.

The PTI complained that hundreds of its workers and leaders, including former Human Rights Minister Shirin Mazari, had been rearrested even after they were granted bail by courts.

Khan has incensed the military

Pakistani authorities warned that those suspected of being involved in the violent protests would face trials in the country's controversial military courts — a platform typically reserved for enemies of the state.

The decision to try civilians under army laws has been slammed by rights groups.

Over a dozen PTI parliamentarians, former ministers and office bearers have deserted Khan since the attacks on military installations. He asserted that they had been pressured into parting ways with him. 

He has been highly critical of the country's military since his ouster from power last year.

And earlier this month, he even accused the military of abducting him — a claim that infuriated the army, which slammed it as being completely baseless.

Putting the PTI under pressure

Anyone who challenges Pakistan's army faces the wrath of the nation's most powerful institution, Karachi-based analyst Tauseef Ahmed Khan pointed out. He told DW that the former prime minister might be prosecuted and banned from running for re-election.

"Such pressure will affect the party, forcing leaders to part ways with Khan. So, in a way, it will be dismantled," he said.

Supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan throw stones towards police during a protest against Khan's arrest
Rights groups have urged all political stakeholders to sit together and resolve the crisisImage: Fayaz Aziz/REUTERS

Asma Shirazi, an Islamabad-based commentator, agreed that Khan's party might not be able to survive the pressure 

Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US and a scholar at Hudson Institute in Washington, echoed Shirazi's sentiments: "Khan's party will subsequently emerge as a much smaller party than it currently seems," he said.

Would a ban dent Khan's popularity?

But for now the former prime minister remains Pakistan's most popular leader. Noor Fatima, an Islamabad-based academic, believes that a ban on his party would do more harm to his rivals than to Khan himself.

She told DW that it would not be a "wise decision," adding that political plurality strengthened democracy. "If the government ends this plurality by banning PTI, it will damage the democratic credentials of the ruling parties, affecting their vote banks, not that of Khan's," she said.

Exclusive: Imran Khan speaks to DW from his besieged home

Sadia, an activist from Okara in the province of Punjab said that if the PTI was outlawed, this could serve as a precedent: "We don't like the PTI's way of politics but would strongly oppose banning any political party. Such a ban would spell disaster for the democratic future of the country," she said.

Tauseef Ahmed Khan posited that a ban would further consolidate the position of the army. "It will create an impression that democratic parties are not capable of dealing with political crises," he suggested, saying that " politicians should avoid banning the PTI" and resolve issues "through dialogue."

History repeating itself?

If Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is banned, it will not be the first party to be outlawed after drawing the ire of the Pakistan army.

In the 1960s, the religious Jamaat-e-Islami party was outlawed. During the 1970s, the left-wing National Awami Party was also declared illegal.

A number of sectarian and religious organizations were outlawed under General Pervez Musharraf, who ruled the country for nearly nine years after seizing power in a military coup in 1999.

The Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement has also faced an unofficial ban in the past, as did the Pakistan People's Party during the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul Haq from 1977 to 1988.

Imran Khan: Pakistan's most polarizing politician

Edited by: Keith Walker

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