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Major Pakistani Opposition Parties Hesitate To Join Protest Aimed At Toppling Gov't

FILE: Pakistan's opposition leaders, Shehbaz Sharif (L) and Maulana Fazlur-Rehman during a meeting in Islamabad in July.

Two leading Pakistani opposition political parties seem noncommittal about joining an Islamist political party in an all-out protest aimed at toppling Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government this month.

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistani Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), the leading opposition political parties inside and outside the parliament, are reportedly pushing the Islamist Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI) to postpone its protest march to oust Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) from power in October.

Weeks before JUI leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman is expected to flood Islamabad with hundreds of thousands of supporters, PPP and PML-N leader are reportedly urging him to delay his protest until November. With a protest dubbed the “Freedom March,” Rehman is hoping to muster enough support to lock down the capital in the mild fall weather in a bid to force Khan from power.

“We are having various discussions, but, God willing, you will see that all of us will be united at a decisive moment,” Rehman told journalists on October 2 in a visible effort to paper over his party’s differences with the PPP and PML-N about the timing of his protest.

Ostensibly, the PML-N and PPP agree that Khan needs to quit power. But compared with Rehman, they have very different ideas about how this should happen.

Weeks after Rehman announced that the PML-N’s incarcerated leader and three-time former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, had called on supporters to join the October protest, key PML-N leaders seem reluctant to commit to taking part in the protest, which is likely to turn into a drawn-out sit-in clogging Islamabad.

“We have conveyed our recommendations [to the JUI] to ask for some time to mobilize our party so we can fully participate in the protest,” PML-N leader Ahsan Iqbal told journalists alongside Rehman on October 2.

“Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz President Shehbaz Sharif will inform our leader Nawaz Sharif about the deliberations of our central executive committee,” Iqbal added. “Ultimately, our leader Nawaz Sharif’s ruling will be the final decision of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.”

Since early September, the PML-N, however, has been torn over whether to participate in Rehman’s protest or pursue a deal with the government and Pakistan’s powerful military leadership. Shehbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother, is known to be keen on seeking an agreement with the military.

Iqbal, however, rejected seeking a deal. “Why would a party continue to make sacrifices even after it has endured incessant government victimization?” he asked. “We are making sacrifices for our ideology. The only deal we are seeking is with the people and the constitution of this country.”

The PPP also sought to present a unified front. “We are together. We will keep in contact so there are no cracks in our unity,” party leader Sherry Rehman told journalists on October 1. “We are holding [internal] party meetings and meetings with other [political parties] including the JUI. We will strive to tell Maulana [Fazlur Rehman] to walk together with us.”

Sherry Rehman said they would press the JUI to not announce a final unilateral call for his planned protest. “Public meeting or long march, there should be no unilateral announcement,” she said. “We should do so after taking each other into confidence, and we have already scheduled meetings to achieve this.”

Faced with rising discontent over rapid inflation and failing to honor its electoral promises of revamping Pakistan, Khan’s administration seems intent on avoiding the protest. “He [Rehman] claims to be a champion of democracy but now he is trying to topple the system,” Firdous Ashiq Awan, a media adviser to Khan, wrote on Twitter. “Where have all his principles gone?”

The JUI is set to decide a final date for its protest in a party leadership meeting on October 3.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.