NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s allies have been arrested. Media outlets and public figures considered sympathetic to him have been intimidated or silenced. He has been hit with charges under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism act and faces the prospect of arrest.

For weeks, Pakistan has been gripped by a political showdown between the ruling establishment and Mr Khan, the former cricket star turned populist politician who was ousted from the prime minister post this year.

The drama has laid bare the perilous state of Pakistani politics – a winner-take-all game in which security forces and the justice system are wielded as weapons to sideline those who have fallen out of favour with the country’s powerful military establishment or political elite.

That playbook has been decades in the making, and it has turned the country’s political sphere into a brutal playground in which only a few elite leaders dare play.

It has also rendered the Pakistani public deeply disillusioned with the political system and the handful of family dynasties that have been at the top of it for decades.

Mr Khan’s own meteoric rise from the fringes of politics to the prime minister’s office in 2018 was a showcase for how hard-bitten Pakistan’s politics have become: His competitors were winnowed from the electoral field by criminal charges, and by threat and intimidation from security forces.

Once in office, he and his supporters employed those same tools to harass and silence journalists and political opponents who criticised him.

Even after falling out with military leaders and being removed from office this year in a no-confidence vote, the charismatic politician has been able to keep himself and his party at the centre of Pakistani politics.

It is a demonstration of his ability to tap into the public’s deep-seated frustration with the political system and wield the kind of populist power once relegated to Pakistani religious leaders.

That popularity has alarmed the new government, led by Mr Shehbaz Sharif, and the military establishment, which began picking off his supporters and have now turned the justice system on Mr Khan himself.

But the well-worn playbook seems to be doing little to keep him in check, at least so far, and some analysts fear the showdown could erupt into violence.

“The former prime minister has been accused of threatening government officials – they are serious allegations bringing the confrontation between him and the federal government to a head,” said Mr Zahid Hussain, an Islamabad-based political analyst, and columnist for Dawn, the country’s leading daily.

“Any move to arrest him could ignite an already volatile political situation.”