Pakistan’s election commission has barred Imran Khan from holding office for allegedly incorrectly declaring his assets in a contentious case that threatens to stoke political tensions in the country.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party confirmed the election commission’s judgment to the Financial Times on Friday, adding that it would challenge the decision in Islamabad’s high court.
The commission has not yet released a full written judgment. The case pertains to allegations that Khan broke the law by selling gifts that he had received while prime minister. He denies wrongdoing while some legal experts questioned whether the case would survive a challenge.
“The election commission of Pakistan is entirely pro-government,” Iftikhar Durrani, a PTI leader, said. “You will see the public come out and protest. Increasingly there will be growing tension all across Pakistan.”
The decision sets up a fraught stand-off between Khan, a former cricket star, and prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, with PTI leaders calling on its supporters to protest across the country.
Sharif replaced Khan in April after the celebrated sportsman lost a no-confidence vote in parliament. But Khan’s popularity has surged after he has railed against what he alleged was a foreign-backed conspiracy to oust him.
Many analysts believe Khan is the most popular candidate in elections that have to be held by late next year.
While PTI leaders said that the decision would disqualify Khan for as long as five years, potentially ruling him out of the election, Asad Rahim Khan, a legal expert based in Lahore, said he expected that the judgment would bar Khan only as long as the current parliament remained in force.
The legal expert argued that he didn’t expect the ruling to survive the higher courts. “It’s a pretty weak decision and it will be difficult to sustain at the appellate stage,” he said.
The former prime minister has faced several legal challenges while in opposition, including being hit with terrorism charges over inflammatory remarks he made. Those were ultimately dropped.
But analysts expect Friday’s judgment to inflame political tensions in Pakistan, which is already dealing with one of its worst ever economic crises.
Since Sharif came to office, he has struggled with a surge in import costs following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and catastrophic flooding that is estimated to have caused tens of billions of dollars in damage.
Pakistani bonds have tumbled on fears that the country, which owes about $130bn in foreign debt, would be forced to restructure loans.
In an interview with the FT this month, Sharif said that the country would need billions more in loans to rebuild infrastructure damaged by the floods.
Sharif warned of rising political volatility in the country. “We are obviously concerned because if there is dissatisfaction leading to deeper political instability and we are not able to achieve our basic requirements and goals, this can obviously lead to serious problems,” he said.