Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 3 December 2020

Pakistan opposition taps into growing anti-government anger

Alliance targets military as well as Prime Minister Imran Khan in rallies that draw huge crowds

Supporters of Pakistan Democratic Movement, an alliance of political opposition parties, attend a rally in Karachi on October 18, 2020. Reuters
Supporters of Pakistan Democratic Movement, an alliance of political opposition parties, attend a rally in Karachi on October 18, 2020. Reuters

Opposition rallies in Pakistan attracted huge crowds over the weekend, mounting the biggest political test of Imran Khan's tenure and the largest challenge to the country's military establishment in years.

Gatherings in Gujranwala and Karachi drew tens of thousands calling for Mr Khan's removal and decrying military interference in Pakistan's politics.

The gatherings heard unprecedented direct attacks on the sitting army chief, accusing him of plotting to have former prime minister Nawaz Sharif ousted and Mr Khan elected.

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a newly formed alliance of 11 opposition parties, has vowed to continue rallies and marches to turn up pressure on Mr Khan's government. The bloc, which includes Mr Sharif's large Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), hopes to take advantage of public anger at rising food prices and economic gloom.

Political temperatures rose further on Monday morning when police seized the husband of Maryam Nawaz, the daughter and political heir of the former three-time premier Mr Sharif. Muhammad Safdar was arrested after complaints from Mr Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party that he had raised political slogans at the mausoleum of Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Maryam Nawaz Sharif, daughter of former prime minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif, speaks at an opposition rally in Karachi on October 18, 2020. AFP
Maryam Nawaz Sharif, daughter of former prime minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif, speaks at an opposition rally in Karachi on October 18, 2020. AFP

Speaking by videoconference from London, Mr Sharif told crowds at Gujranwala stadium on Friday night that Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of army staff, “will have to be accountable” for bringing Mr Khan to power.

Two days later, his daughter used the Karachi gathering to say Mr Khan had "snatched jobs from people” and “snatched two-times-a-day food from the people".

Pakistan's opposition has been cowed and harried since the 2018 election, in which Mr Khan campaigned on promises to punish what he said was a venal elite looting the country. Leaders have been pursued by anti-corruption courts and Mr Sharif now refuses to return after being let out of prison to receive medical treatment in Britain. Anti-graft investigators last week issued arrest warrants for former PPP president Asif Ali Zardari over suspected money laundering. The opposition says the cases are a politically-motivated witch hunt.

Pakistan's military has ruled the country directly, or from behind the scenes, for much of the nation's history. The PDM's decision to challenge the military itself leaves it charting a difficult course in a country where troops and generals command widespread public respect.

Supporters of Pakistan Democratic Movement, an alliance of political opposition parties, attend a rally in Karachi on October 18, 2020. AFP
Supporters of Pakistan Democratic Movement, an alliance of political opposition parties, attend a rally in Karachi on October 18, 2020. AFP

Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistan expert at the Chatham House think tank, said the movement was not yet as significant a challenge to military power as 1980s protests led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Yet the singling out of a sitting army chief for such public criticism was a first, she said.

Attendees at the rally in Gujranwala, a PML-N stronghold, appeared more angry at Mr Khan for his failure to rein in runaway price hikes than at possible military flouting of the constitution.

Food price inflation hit nearly 15 per cent last month and one in five Pakistanis have had to borrow food or ask friends or relatives for help, according to Gallup polling.

Waqar Ahmad, a shopkeeper, said he voted for Mr Khan in 2018 but had become disillusioned with his handling of the economy.

“It's the price hikes, its's the inflation,” he told The National. “I voted PTI for some relief, but things have only got worse. Nawaz Sharif may have been corrupt but he did some good work.”

“We are here to send Imran Khan home,” added another attendee, Mohammad Rafiq. “The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.”

Mr Khan has shrugged off the protests, saying the opposition leaders are crooks trying to use their parties' street power to press for an amnesty, which he will never grant.

The PML-N and PPP leadership's history of making deals with the military made the goals of their alliance bloc difficult to predict, said Dr Shaikh.

“We are waiting to see whether or not this show of force can really build up in terms of a major movement, or whether it is to send a message to the military establishment that we are ready to sit down and do a deal, but the present situation of harassing and hounding has to stop.”

For the military's part, it is likely to try to split off parts of the PDM to undermine the opposition's united front.

“I still believe that the dice are always loaded in favour of the military in Pakistan,” she said.

“I really don't see this movement as one to signify a major shift in the balance of power.”

Updated: October 19, 2020 05:19 PM

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