Imran Khan may channel public anger into a mass-revolt

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International Monetary Fund, PTI, Imran Khan

With the impending budget and the harsh economic measures, it will introduce, especially for the urban poor and the middle class, Pakistan faces a turbulent period. The budget, enforced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is expected to exacerbate the economic hardships faced by many. Amid this backdrop, there is growing speculation about whether the imprisoned PTI leader Imran Khan can harness the resultant public anger and transform it into widespread protests, thereby challenging the current hybrid political system.

While the scenario remains hypothetical, it is also quite plausible. The PTI, under Khan’s leadership, has demonstrated remarkable success in leveraging social media not only to connect with supporters but also to organize its ranks. Even from prison, Imran Khan maintains a presence on social media platforms, as evidenced by recent posts on X (formerly Twitter). This ability to communicate with his base suggests that should the budget provoke significant backlash; social media could play a crucial role in mobilizing public discontent into a formidable anti-government movement.

However, this potential uprising faces several obstacles. The May 9 protests last year created a significant rift between the PTI and the establishment, leading to a severe crackdown on the party’s supporters. Many loyalists, including prominent women such as Yasmeen Rashid, Aliya Hamza, and Sanam Javed, have been incarcerated for over a year. Despite these incarcerations, the PTI has struggled to generate substantial public pressure for their release, indicating the challenges in mobilizing a sustained protest movement.

Despite the challenges, Imran Khan himself has received relief in various cases from the judiciary, highlighting a potential friction between the judicial system and the establishment. Some judges have indicated that their decisions are based on legal merit and the Constitution, not the pressures from the security services or establishment’s desires. This tension between sections of the judiciary and the establishment could lead to unpredictable consequences, further complicating the political landscape.

The establishment remains confident that the legal cases against Khan are robust. They believe that certain judges in the superior courts harbor a soft corner for the PTI leader, influencing their decisions. This belief has fueled a narrative within the establishment that some judicial decisions are not based on merit but on political sympathies, further deepening the divide between the two.

Social media has been a critical tool for the PTI, evident from their success in the February elections. Despite the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) denying the PTI its ‘bat’ symbol, the party’s candidates, running as independents, managed to perform well. This success was largely due to the PTI’s adept use of social media to inform and guide voters. An app developed by the party’s social media teams helped voters identify party-backed candidates, mitigating the disadvantage of not having the official symbol.

This mastery of social media underscores its importance in any potential anti-government movement. The PTI’s narrative has consistently outperformed counter-narratives, illustrating the platform’s power in shaping public opinion and mobilizing support. As the government prepares for the budget, the role of social media will be pivotal in determining the public’s response and any subsequent actions by the PTI.

In response to the PTI’s dominance on social media, the government is reportedly considering deploying a system similar to China’s ‘Great Wall of China’ (GWC) to monitor and block social media content. This system, if implemented, would aim to control the flow of information and curb the PTI’s ability to mobilize its base. The proposed legislation in Punjab and similar measures under consideration in Islamabad reflect a broader strategy to muzzle social media.

The effectiveness of such measures remains uncertain, given the technical and operational challenges in deploying a sophisticated monitoring system. Additionally, the government aims to implement these controls without hindering the operations of software companies and call centers, which are crucial for the economy. This delicate balancing act will test the government’s competence and ability to execute its plans without stifling economic growth.

Traditional media, including TV channels and newspapers, has largely been sidelined in discussions about media influence. This shift is primarily due to the perception that traditional media is heavily controlled by the authorities, acting as their mouthpiece. The dominance of social media in political discourse has overshadowed traditional media’s role, highlighting the changing landscape of information dissemination in Pakistan.

As Pakistan braces for the economic challenges posed by the upcoming budget, the political landscape remains volatile. Imran Khan and the PTI’s ability to mobilize public discontent through social media could significantly impact the government’s stability. However, the PTI faces significant hurdles, including the aftermath of the May 9 protests and the government’s potential measures to control social media.

The judiciary’s role and its tension with the establishment add another layer of complexity to the situation. As positions harden on both sides, the potential for confrontation grows. The coming weeks will be crucial in determining whether Imran Khan can channel public anger into a movement capable of challenging the current political system. The stakes are high, and the outcome remains uncertain, with the potential for significant political upheaval in the face of economic hardship.

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