Pakistan is on the cusp of a political storm after most major opposition parties demanded the country’s powerful generals surrender their stranglehold over politics and withdraw support for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration, which the opposition has vowed to oust through street agitation.
On September 29, the newly former Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) announced it would kick off a nationwide protest campaign on October 11. The announcement came a day after the showdown between the government and the opposition reached a fever pitch following the arrest of opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif in a money-laundering case that he says is politically motivated. Asif Ali Zardari, a former president and leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), was indicted in a separate money-laundering case the same day.
“We want to make clear that the current selected [civilian] government is a mere showpiece,” Abdul Ghafoor Haidri, a leader of Jamiat Ulama-e Islam (JUI), an Islamist party, said while reiterating the opposition’s claim that the military rigged the 2018 election in Khan’s favor. “We want to tell the forces propping up this government to cease supporting them because they have destroyed this nation and its poor,” he said, alluding to the military’s continued support for Khan’s administration.
Political turmoil in Pakistan is growing a week after Shehbaz’s elder brother and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), declared military interference as the root of political instability, economic decline, and diplomatic isolation for the Muslim country of 220 million people.
“It is sad to note that our problems have now moved beyond the state within the state to a state above the state,” Sharif told opposition leaders on September 20, referring to the power of the army generals over the country’s formal constitutional political system. “The disease of establishing parallel governments is the root cause of our problems.”
Khan’s administration and the military, however, have rejected Sharif’s criticism. They blame opposition leaders for fomenting instability as a pressure tactic to get rid of the anti-graft investigations and court cases they face.
Such disagreements have put the country’s politics in a bind. The military, which has ruled Pakistan directly for nearly half of its 73-year history, isn’t ready for popular opposition, particularly from within the eastern province of Punjab. The country’s most populous province is the key recruiting ground for the military and a key bastion of the PML-N, whose leadership comes from the region’s business elites.
A key election for the Senate or upper house of the Pakistani parliament also looms large over the opposition’s strategy. The vote in March 2021 will strengthen Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI). The party is currently a minority party in the Senate, which prevents it from adopting any meaningful legislation.
Suhail Warraich, a senior journalist, says the coming weeks and months will see increased political turmoil. “Conventional wisdom holds that the government becomes strong after sending the opposition to prison,” he wrote. “But in reality, when the opposition’s got its back up against the wall, it fights back and conspires with different forces.”
Rhetoric by senior opposition leaders, however, indicates they have had enough. “We cannot live in this country as slaves,” JUI leader Maulana Fazal-ur Rehman told supporters on September 28.
Rehman issued a warning to the military, without mentioning it by name. “If you continue to act badly then your fate might not be different from what happened to America in [neighboring] Afghanistan,” he said in a veiled threat to adopt Taliban tactics. Most JUI leaders are Deobandi clerics and run a network of thousands of madrasahs, where most leaders and many foot soldiers of the Taliban were educated. The JUI has shunned violence and adopted parliamentary politics as a means to political power.
Rehman’s bold strategy appears to have paid off. Pakistani media reported that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the anti-graft body, served Rehman a notice following the September 20 opposition gathering that formed the PDM. But on September 29 NAB reportedly said it had not called Rehman in for questioning over alleged corruption.
Lawmaker Maulana Attaur Rehman, his younger brother, said NAB had arrested Musa Khan, a key confidant of Rehman’s, while police had begun arresting JUI supporters.
“We have decided to protest at the provincial level and will hold a sit-in protest in front of the Corps Commander House in Peshawar,” he told Samaa, a private television news station, on September 28. The corps commander is one of the most senior army field commanders who leads troops in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where Peshawar is the capital. The JUI is a major electoral force in the region, which borders Afghanistan. “We will protest there because we know [who is the real power] behind this government.”
But last week Major General Babar Iftikhar, a spokesman for the Pakistani military, said army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had a clear message during a recent meeting with a senior PML-N leader.
“The army chief made it clear that their [the opposition’s] legal problems will be solved in Pakistan’s courts while the political issues will be resolved in the parliament,” he told the ARY television station. “He reiterated that the army should be kept away from these issues.”
Fawad Chaudhry, the science and technology minister in Khan’s administration, reiterated the government’s stance that all of the opposition’s criticism is aimed at saving their necks in graft cases.
“They [the opposition] are asking why the judiciary and the military are not lending a helping hand in protecting the money of Nawaz Sharif and his family," he told Geo television.
Such a wide gulf between the government and the opposition’s perspectives hints that the country’s political battle is likely to be fought in the public sphere. Opposition politicians are adamant that in the absence of any major improvement in the economy or security amid mounting censorship and authoritarianism, Pakistanis will be more amenable to taking to the streets in protest.