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In Pakistan, Political Standoff Switches Into High Gear

FILE: Pakistani opposition leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Chairman Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) listens to Maryam Nawaz (L), daughter of currently incarcerated former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during a press conference in May.
FILE: Pakistani opposition leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Chairman Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) listens to Maryam Nawaz (L), daughter of currently incarcerated former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during a press conference in May.

Political temperatures in Pakistan are rapidly rising as the opposition takes to the streets and the government doubles down on stifling dissent and imprisoning its critics amid rising economic troubles.

Large opposition protests in four provincial capitals marked July 25 as a “Black Day.” It was part of a campaign against the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) government aiming to highlight what the opposition leader says were rigged elections on the same day last year that propelled the PTI into power.

“The party has just begun with the initiation of our movement [against the government],” Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari told the opposition rally in the southern seaport city of Karachi late on July 25.

“Inshallah (God willing), we will elect Hasil Bizenjo as the chairman of the Senate during the next phase,” he said. The young PPP leader was alluding to a key opposition move to remove the incumbent, Sadiq Sanjrani, from leading the Senate or upper house of the Pakistani Parliament through a no-confidence move slated to be put to a vote on August 1. Opposition parties in the Senate are adamant that their combined strength in the 104-member house will ensure that they elect Bizenjo, leader of the National Party (NP), a small ethno-nationalist group in southwestern Balochistan Province.

Opposition parties are banking on public frustration over rising inflation, increasing taxes, and a wider crackdown on dissent to transform their agitation into a serious challenge for the PTI government.

“This is the first government [in Pakistan’s history] which is witnessing the opposition uniting to launch a movement within its first year in office,” former lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak told Radio Mahsaal. “Poor and [middle-class] people are finding it hard to survive on their current incomes, so they are rising up, which makes the opposition political parties’ job easy because they only have to provide their flag and platform to the people.”

But forcing the PTI government from office is no easy task.

Its leaders are eager to note that for the first time in years, their administration and the country’s military are on the same page. To domestic audiences, this means that the PTI currently enjoys the unwavering support of senior military generals seen as holding the real power by establishing a monopoly over defining national interests and ultimate control over foreign and domestic policies.

The two now seem to be in agreement over how to deal with opposition politicians. "Our country will never progress unless we go for real accountability for those who robbed it and burdened it with debt -- unless they are not sent to jail," Prime Minister Imran Khan told supporters on July 25.

Last week, Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB), an anticorruption agency, arrested former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on corruption charges. Another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, leader of Abbasi’s Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) party, is currently in prison after an NAB judge convicted him of corruption. In June, authorities arrested former President Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the PPP, on money-laundering charges. Scores of other opposition lawmakers, leaders, and activists are also behind bars.

But the crackdown has prompted opposition parties to unite and push back. “I will not give them seven dollars,” Zardari told a journalist when asked about rumors that he is negotiating a $7 billion plea bargain with the NAB.

In early July, Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, stirred a political storm by releasing a secretly filmed video of a judge who had convicted Sharif in a corruption case last year. The video, which showed Judge Arshad Malik telling a PML-N member that unidentified people had blackmailed him into convicting the former prime minister, rattled the judiciary.

Malik was fired. The country’s Supreme Court is now looking into the issue. But Nawaz has perhaps succeeded in casting doubt over the accountability drive.

More significantly, she seems to have marshalled the PML-N’s street power in the populous eastern province of Punjab. Most of the Pakistani Army’s soldiers and officer corps come from the region where the country’s main industry, commerce, and agriculture are concentrated.

“Punjab was stained for standing behind the establishment,” she said, referring to the military with a popular euphemism. “But there is a lot of anger -- I have seen seething anger in Punjab with my eyes -- and this time around Punjab is going to rid the stain of siding with the establishment.”

A day earlier, on July 25, she had a clear message for the Pakistani military. “I want to request our [security] institutions to refrain from carrying the burden of the failures of an incompetent leader [Imran Khan],” she told thousands of opposition supporters in the southwestern city of Quetta. “I call on you to not stand against the people.”

Opposition politicians are also casting their agitation as an existential struggle for democracy in Pakistan.

"July 25 [2018] is a black day in our history because they not only targeted the parliament [through rigged elections] but are aiming to wipe out democracy," Bilawal said. "Now they are not only targeting politicians but are aiming to end all politics."

The PTI, however, appears bent on surviving the opposition onslaught because Khan holds the power to appoint the military chief. With the current military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s term set to expire in November, a case for giving him a new term is being made. With Khan’s fate seen as inextricably linked with Bajwa’s, extending his term might prove to be his best bet to cling to power.

The opposition, too, is preparing to reveal its trump card. On July 25, opposition leaders said they are ready to march on Islamabad to oust the PTI’s government.

“Promise me that you will march toward Islamabad to participate in the last push against this forged government that has assumed office by stealing your votes,” Nawaz asked supporters in Quetta.