Political unrest and economic crisis are shaking Pakistan

(To George Armento)

In recent days, Pakistan has been rocked by violent clashes between the forces of order and supporters of former president Imran Khan. The unrest began on Tuesday following an arrest warrant issued by the Punjab High Court of Justice against Khan. The former president should appear before the Court as a defendant in a corruption trial for facts dating back to the period of his presidency.

In the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, the Punjab authorities ordered the Rangers, the regional police force, to carry out the arrest. Upon hearing the news, Kahn's supporters, mostly belonging to his party, Pakistan Justice Movement (PTI), have mobilized to prevent his capture, claiming that it would be a conspiracy to exclude Khan from the next elections.

The climax of the tension was reached on the evening of 15 March, at 19 pm Italian time, when the attempt by the Cleaning to break into the Zaman Park villa to arrest the former president was thwarted by the crowd that had lined up to protect the villa. A clash between demonstrators and the police ensued, with a balance of 29 injured between police and demonstrators.

Khan himself, who escaped arrest, added fuel to the fire in a video message released in the evening by espousing the conspiracy theory and denouncing the intention of the current government and Pakistani institutions to prevent him from running for president again. Khan went on to urge his constituents to continue protesting what he calls a tyranny, even if he is arrested or even killed.

Once the video message was disclosed, the clashes spread to the capital Islamabad and to the most populous urban centres. To stem the unrest and limit the coordination of the protests, the authorities have blocked access to the internet in various areas of the country. After nearly 24 hours of clashes and repeated attempts to break through protesters' defenses, the Lahore High Court on Wednesday night ordered the police to halt the operation.

Given the widespread popular support enjoyed by the president, especially in the most populated areas of the country, the episode risks exacerbating the already tense climate in which the country is heading towards the presidential elections, scheduled for next October. Already in January, the authorities accused Khan of acting irresponsibly after members of his party, by resigning, brought down the government of the important regions of Punjab and Khyber.

The Finance Minister raises the tone with the International Monetary Fund

Riots also take place in a delicate moment for the country from an economic point of view. Pakistan, whose foreign exchange reserves have dried up following a long economic crisis, is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund to receive a $1,1 billion loan.

At the end of the last meeting with the Pakistani authorities, the IMF representatives stated that they believed loan conditions not met, among which there would be the implementation of tax system reforms, the fight against corruption and the implementation of infrastructural interventions in the poorest areas of the country.

In yesterday's report to parliament, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar brightened the tone on the issue, saying the IMF is delaying the disbursement of the loan due to Pakistan's nuclear program. On the subject, in the words of the minister, the country he would not be willing to compromise, in safeguarding the national interest.

The role of Pakistan in the Indo-Pacific region

If the territorial dispute with India is far from dormant, the last decade has seen a increased relations with China. Precisely with the Khan presidency, Pakistan has intensified its partnership in the ambit of Belt And Road Initiative, offering Chinese trade an outlet on the Indian Ocean with the China-Pakistan corridor. Furthermore, in the aftermath of the Taliban's seizure of power in Kabul, the country remains particularly subject to the penetration of Islamic extremism.

The prospect of a political crisis - in addition to the economic one - therefore undermines the stability of a country which, in addition to being a nuclear power, is central to the delicate balance of the Indo-Pacific region.