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Pakistani Opposition Unites Against Military’s Political Role

Pakistan's opposition parties leaders, from left, Maryam Nawaz, Shahbaz Sharif, Maulana Fazalur Rehman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Yousuf Raza Gillani, and Mahmood Khan Achakzai during the all parties conference in Islamabad on June 26.
Pakistan's opposition parties leaders, from left, Maryam Nawaz, Shahbaz Sharif, Maulana Fazalur Rehman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Yousuf Raza Gillani, and Mahmood Khan Achakzai during the all parties conference in Islamabad on June 26.

Most opposition political parties in Pakistan appear to be uniting in opposing the growing role of the country’s powerful military in shaping the country’s politics, governance, and economy.

A major meeting of leaders of the country’s main liberal, conservative, ethno-nationalist, and Islamist political parties this week agreed on a charter of demands, an agitation date, and a way forward that extensively targets the military’s involvement in Pakistan’s politics and its role in shaping major policies.

Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI), an Islamist political party, hosted the June 26 meeting that included the top leaders of the conservative Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), the liberal Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and nearly half a dozen other parties. Together they present a formidable opposition to the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), whose coalition government holds a thin parliamentary majority.

“This meeting has emphasized parliamentary, constitutional, and civilian rule in the country,” JUI leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman told journalists late on June 26. “We will oppose every move aimed at weakening the parliamentary democracy in our country.”

Rehman said the opposition will unite in moving a no-confidence motion against Sadiq Sanjrani, the current chairman of the Senate or upper house of the Pakistani Parliament. He vowed to mark July 25 as a “black day” to protest what the opposition claims were rigged elections on the same day last year.

Former lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak says the opposition meeting is significant because it shows their resolve to reverse what they see as “political engineering” by the military.

He told the RFE/RL Gandhara website that most opposition leaders are convinced the PTI’s rise since 2011 and its victory in last year’s parliamentary election was orchestrated by the military, which now holds a commanding influence over the administration. The PTI denies being supported by the military, and a spokesman for the military has repeatedly denied meddling in politics.

Khattak says the election of Sanjrani, a political novice, to lead the Senate in March 2018 was part of a larger scheme to dominate the current political system by orchestrating the PTI’s victory. “Removing the chairman of the senate will be a logical first step toward the subsequent removal of the puppet government,” he said of the opposition’s strategy.

Beyond the country’s treacherous power politics, some of the opposition’s most pressing demands also directly address the military.

“We demand that laws should be framed to deal with the issue of forced disappearances,” Rehman said. “People being held by the security forces must be presented before courts of law. We need to also legislate against torture.”

For more than a decade now, Pakistani political parties and human rights organization have accused the security forces of being involved in forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and other grave abuses in conflict regions such as southwestern Balochistan Province and parts of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

While the Pakistani military denies any involvement, these issues have prompted large-scale protests under the banner of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a civil rights movement that emerged in February 2018.

The Pakistani military has accused the movement of colluding with the intelligence services of neighboring India and Afghanistan. But PTM leaders reject such accusations and say they are demanding rights and security for Pakistan’s largest ethnic minority, an estimated 35 million Pashtuns, through peaceful protests.

Months of tensions between the military and the PTM boiled over last month. On May 26, the military killed 13 PTM protesters at a check post in North Waziristan tribal district, according the movement’s members and witnesses. The military, however, said it only responded after protesters led by lawmakers Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir first opened fire.

The two PTM lawmakers are still in prison. Asad Qaisar, a PTI leader and speaker of the National Assembly or lower house of the Pakistani Parliament, has refrained from allowing them to participate in the ongoing budget session. Opposition leaders demanded that the two lawmakers must be allowed to participate in the parliament’s deliberations and called for the formation of a parliamentary committee to probe the May incident in Waziristan.

Rehman said that all leaders are united in opposing the military’s role in first-ever provincial elections in Waziristan and five other districts of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which were merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last year. “We reject the election commission’s recommendation of deploying army soldiers inside the polling stations during the upcoming elections in the erstwhile FATA,” he told journalists.

The opposition rejected the PTI’s proposed budget and ruled out new government initiatives to investigate alleged past corruption and grant the military a formal role in economic decision-making. It called for the freedom of press, which international watchdogs say is reeling from censorship imposed by the military.

Senior leaders of the ruling PTI, however, are not deterred by the opposition’s posturing.

“It is the job of the opposition to criticize and target us, while ours is to stop them,” Firdous Ashiq Awan, a special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan, told reporters. “There is not a single word in the [opposition] parties’ declaration against corruption,” she said, alluding to her party’s longstanding campaign that most Pakistan’s current problems stem from corruption by leaders of the PPP, PML-N, and other parties.

But opposition politicians are banking on rising resentment among Pakistan’s 207 million people amid rapid economic decline. The rupee, the Pakistani currency, dropped to another record low against the U.S. dollar this week. Since December 2017, the rupee has lost more than half its value. Runaway inflation, new taxes, and increasing utility prices are stoking widespread anger.

“We aim to relieve the masses of the crippling inflation created by the incompetent government that assumed power after a rigged election,” Rehman said.