Pakistan opposition seeks end to Imran Khan’s ‘puppet’ rule

Supporters of opposition political party Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), part of an alliance of major opposition political parties, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM),
Supporters of opposition political party Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz protesting in Quetta last month

Opposition parties in Pakistan are keeping up the pressure on Imran Khan, holding a series of mass protests against his government.

They allege the prime minister came to power in rigged 2018 elections backed by the military.

On Sunday, thousands of protesters are due to demonstrate in the city of Peshawar, despite a government threat to ban gatherings to curb rising coronavirus cases.

The PM, who came to power on an anti-corruption platform, has said the campaign is aimed at blackmailing him to drop corruption cases against opposition leaders.

Pakistan’s powerful military denies interfering in politics and Mr Khan rejects claims it helped him win.

The next general election is not due until 2023.

Who is behind the rallies?

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) has held a series of mass demonstrations since 16 October.

Its members range from a right-wing religious group to centrist and left-of-centre mainstream parties as well as secular nationalists.

Huge rallies have taken place in three of the country’s four provinces – Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. Sunday’s is the first the PDM has held in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Opposition parties say they want to overthrow the “unrepresentative” government, which they also accuse of putting pressure on the judiciary and mismanaging the economy.

Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan (L) and Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani, (not seen) talk with journalists during a joint press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, 19 November 2020.
Protesters allege that Prime Minister Imran Khan came to power in a rigged election

The PDM is the latest alliance which aims to restore “real” democracy in Pakistan’s perpetual civil-military conflict.

But this time a top highlight is the return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to public politics.

And he has done this with a difference.

His direct hits at the two top military officials – army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and chief of the top military intelligence agency, the ISI, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed – are unprecedented in the country’s 73-year history.

He says they are responsible for Pakistan’s political and economic woes.

What do the rallies tell us?

The rallies held so far in Gujranwala, Karachi and Quetta took place despite hurdles such as road blocks and even some arrests by the authorities.

In one such incident, Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law, Safdar Awan, was arrested from his hotel room early in the morning after the Karachi rally on 19 October.

The move caused embarrassment to both the government and the military after footage of the raid emerged, showing security personnel breaking into Mr Awan’s room when he was sleeping with his wife.

Soon it emerged that hours before the raid, the police chief of Sindh, of which Karachi is the capital, was taken from his residence to the offices of an intelligence service and “forced” to sign Mr Awan’s arrest orders.

Subsequently, the entire officer cadre of Sindh police applied for “protest leave”, which they postponed when the army chief announced an in-house inquiry into the police chief’s alleged kidnapping.

But although the army chief ordered the removal of certain ISI and military officials, no visible action has been taken against them yet.

The authorities have also put pressure on the media to censor some of the speeches at the rallies.

During live coverage, television channels invariably cut back to the studios when Mr Sharif begins his video-link address from London, or when nationalist leaders like Mohsin Dawar take to the rostrum.

These leaders have been castigating the army, accusing it of enforced disappearances, human rights abuses, and controlling the Khan government from behind the scenes.

Is it true that the election was rigged?

Imran Khan and his team claim the people voted for them because they were sick of the “massive corruption” under previous governments run by Mr Sharif’s PML-N party and former President Asif Zardari’s PPP.

But for independent observers, the 2018 elections were the dirtiest in Pakistan’s history. Pre-election surveys had forecast a clear majority for the PML-N, but Imran Khan’s PTI ended up winning by a thin margin.

Ahead of the election, Nawaz Sharif was convicted while prime minister on what the legal community had widely described as questionable grounds, and was put behind bars. He was later allowed to go to the UK for medical treatment.

On election day itself, the national results service suspiciously crashed, ending the hope for quick online transmission of vote counts direct from each constituency. Many polling agents alleged that figures shown in the final results were different from those they had delivered after the physical vote count.

So Imran Khan’s government started off with suspect legitimacy.

Since then allegations of human rights abuses have mounted against state agencies, media censorship has worsened and journalists who paint the military in a negative light have faced threats or even kidnapping. The most recent example is that of the Karachi journalist who obtained and shared the CCTV footage of the raid on Mr Awan’s hotel room.

What happens now?

No one can be sure where the current uprising will lead.

But everyone knows that the battle is between the politicians and the military, with Prime Minister Imran Khan seen by his opponents as an appendage of the latter.

The opposition rallies have not only questioned the legitimacy of his government, but have also thrown a direct challenge to the heads of the army and the ISI, in a country with a history of civil-military tension and coups.

The last popular uprising was in 2008, when General Pervez Musharraf was ousted and the constitution restored.

Since then, the country has witnessed what analysts describe as a creeping coup, which transformed into a “hybrid military regime” in 2018.

Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert on the Pakistani military, believes that due to the opposition’s recent onslaught, the chiefs of the army and the ISI have begun to look weak, but not the army itself.

In order to ensure the supremacy of the constitution, members of the opposition alliance will need to develop a “core expertise that would make a cogent civil-military dialogue and a pushback possible”, she says.

In addition, she says, they will “have to be willing to re-arrange overall socio-political and socio-economic relations beyond winning elections”.

The coming weeks and months will show if the new opposition alliance can achieve all of this and more.

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