Major political parties appear to be throwing their weight behind an Islamist leader’s protest aimed at ousting Pakistan’s civilian government.
As the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) scrambles to prevent the Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI) from staging a massive protest in the capital, Islamabad, toward the end of this month, many major political parties have either announced their outright support or indicated their willingness to back the campaign.
In a major development, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s former prime minister and the jailed leader of the Pakistan Muslims League Nawaz (PML-N), announced his unequivocal support for JUI leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman.
"Our viewpoint is the same as Maulana's [Fazlur Rehman's] viewpoint,” Nawaz told journalist on October 11 as authorities were taking him to court from his prison cell in the eastern city of Lahore. “We salute Maulana’s passion, and yesterday I wrote to [my younger brother and PML-N President] Shehbaz Sharif in detail; I believe, he will act.”
The announcement has ended apparent confusion within the PML-N leadership ranks. For weeks, Shehbaz and some allied leaders resisted joining JUI’s protest as they advocated pursuing a deal with the country’s powerful military. Some leaders also highlighted the need for a consensus within their party ranks and a final decision by Nawaz.
Dubbed a “freedom march,” the protest will begin on October 27 when protest rallies from across Pakistan are expected to begin marching toward Islamabad. Once in the capital by October 31, the protest is expected to turn into a sit-in in front of the parliament.
The PML-N is the leading opposition party in the parliament and its large support base in the eastern Pakistani province of Punjab might tip the balance in Rehman’s favor. As Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab enjoys a lion’s share in the country’s parliament, bureaucracy, and armed forces.
On October 10, secular Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the second-largest opposition party, also announced its backing for the protest.
“Staging a sit-in is Maulana’s democratic and constitutional right and we fully support that,” PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari told journalists on October 10. “We still don’t believe in the politics of staging sit-ins, but now that the PTI government is continuing to ignore parliament and oppressing political rivals, we might consider taking extreme measures.”
On October 10, the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, a secular ethno-nationalist group with a sizeable support base among the Pashtuns in the southwestern province of Balochistan, also announced its support for Rehman’s march.
“We are united against the government in principle,” Mian Iftikhar Hussain, leader of the secular Awami National Party (ANP), noted on October 10. “Although the announcement of the freedom march was JUI’s decision, the opposition has decided to take ownership of the protest.” The ANP support base is mostly limited to the Peshawar Valley in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is predominantly populated by ethnic Pashtuns, Pakistan’s largest ethnic minority.
PTI leaders, however, are keen on demonstrating that they are not impressed by the gathering political storm capable of eclipsing their 13-month-old government. Senior federal and provincial ministers are keen to point out real or imagined differences among opposition parties while questioning Rehman’s motives.
“Maulana’s boat will sink. He will achieve nothing through his march,” Fayyaz-ul-Hassan Chohan, a provincial minister and PTI leader in Punjab, declared on October 11.
“So far, they [the opposition political parties] are not united. Even the PML-N is not fully onboard with Maulana,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told journalists on October 11. “There are even two point of view within the [Pakistan] Peoples Party.”
Nevertheless, Pakistan appears to be heading toward a major political showdown. In 2014, the PTI, then an opposition party, partially paralyzed Islamabad by camping out in front of the parliament for more than four months.