The Pakistani political and institutional system is currently marked by sharp conflict between the government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an anti-government coalition representing the interests of various opposition parties.
The PDM’s objectives include the end of the Khan government and early elections (before the one scheduled for August 2023); to this end, the PDM has called for demonstrations and protest marches in the main Pakistani urban centres. At the moment, there have been no serious acts of violence, but PDM criticism of the country’s army and secret service, accused of having helped the PTI thrive and indirectly controlling its action, entail a higher risk of political instability. In the short term, much will depend on the outcome of the 3 March 2021 Senate election, in which all PDM components are planning to run as a whole.
The most likely scenario is that Imran Khan’s government will end its mandate as scheduled, thanks to the support of the Pakistani security apparatus and the lack of unity between the political actors in the PDM. This scenario will be possible especially if the PTI wins the next Senate election. In the coming months, the country will, however, be affected by widespread anti-government protests, mainly due to the difficult economic situation, that the health crisis has exacerbated.
A second plausible scenario is a government reshuffle, especially in the event that the parties that make up the PDM obtain a positive result in the election. In such circumstance, the Pakistani security apparatus could opt for changes in the government to contain popular discontent, but the Prime Minister will unlikely be replaced.
The worst scenario is that of a significant escalation of protests, resulting in widespread acts of violence with wounded and deaths among civilians, as well as potential terrorist attacks by jihadist and separatist groups active in Pakistan (which could exploit the situation to plan and carry out new operations). In a situation of significant instability, a military coup d’état should not be ruled out (as happened in the past); the military would explain a coup with the civilian political forces being unable to effectively deal with the many challenges that Pakistan will be faced with in the short to medium term.