Protests have spread across Pakistan as police attempt to arrest opposition leader Imran Khan as Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government struggles to restore calm.
Law enforcement clashed on Wednesday with protesters loyal to Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party of Khan outside his home in central Lahore, following a failed attempt to arrest the former prime minister on Tuesday evening.
His supporters outside the compound threw stones at police, who used tear gas, armored vehicles and water cannons to try to contain the protests. The PTI alleged that the complex was under “attack”.
Khanwho was ousted in a no-confidence vote last year, has for months been locked in a bitter political stalemate with the Sharif government, which is grappling with a deep economic crisis.
Many analysts believe Khan will be the most popular candidate if he is allowed to stand in national elections, which are due to be held by October, but he faces a barrage of legal challenges. If found guilty, he could be banned from holding public office.
Khan’s attempted arrest stems from allegations that he illegally sold gifts he received while serving as prime minister from 2018 to 2022. PakistanKhan’s election commission found he broke the rules and a court in Islamabad ordered Khan’s arrest after he failed to appear for a hearing. Khan blamed security concerns for his absence.
Khan and his supporters say he broke no rules, describing the allegations as an attempt to remove him from the running for office. “They think by arresting Imran Khan you will fall asleep,” Khan said on Twitter, addressing his followers. “You have to prove them wrong.”
In Islamabad, protesters briefly tried to block the main road linking the Pakistani capital to the nearby town of Rawalpindi. There were other protests in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, and in Peshawar.
Shireen Mazari, a PTI leader, told the Financial Times that the party would step up its protests if Khan was arrested. “If he is taken into custody, there will be more protests,” she said. “The situation will only get worse.”
Political tension has been heightened by Pakistan’s economic difficulties. The country is grappling with one of its deepest financial crises historically the product of domestic mismanagement, high inflation and soaring commodity prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
An index measuring inflation for everyday items at the start of the month topped 40%, and the country’s foreign exchange reserves fell to around $4 billion, enough for just a month’s worth of imports.
Sharif’s government tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a bailout with the IMF. This month, the central bank of Pakistan raised its lending rate by 300 basis points at 20%, the highest rate in Asia, a critical condition for the IMF.
But the government has resisted other conditions demanded by the IMF, including higher taxes and lower energy subsidies, arguing they are not politically viable ahead of the election.