Relatively new, untested political party leaders expect at least one million people to participate in marches and a sit-in aimed at ousting Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
KARACHI, Pakistan — On Thursday, Pakistan’s Independence Day, as many as one million people made their way toward the federal capital, Islamabad, to stage a sit-in that will continue until the government falls. The sit-in participants are followers of two firebrands — Imran Khan and Dr. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri. In the early afternoon, they set off from Lahore, located in Punjab province, some 367 kilometers from Islamabad.
Khan, a former cricketing hero-turned politician, is leading the Azadi, or Freedom, march, while ul-Qadri is leading the Inqilab, or Revolution, march. The marches will travel separately, then merge in Islamabad.
Though fairly new to the political game, these two untested leaders command huge followings and are able to marshal angry and frustrated masses. Khan formed the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice, in 1996. The party now has a massive youth following, many of whom see Khan as a kind of savior from corrupt leaders. In last year’s elections, his party garnered the second-highest amount of winning votes, and it currently governs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the country’s northwest.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s second detractor, ul-Qadri, is a moderate cleric who lives in Canada. He only recently formed the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, or Pakistan People’s Movement, and has yet to formally enter into the political fray. He still has no presence in the parliament. He set up a chain of religious educational and welfare institutions in 1981 across Pakistan and in 90 countries by the name of Minhaj-ul-Quran International. Those who have benefited from these institutions have proven to be a loyal support base.
Last year, over 40,000 of ul-Qadri’s followers braved the January cold to stage a three-day sit-in in Islamabad to call for the ousting of political leaders. They did not succeed and the protest ended after the government promised to sign a deal — the Islamabad Long March Declaration — with ul-Qadri. The same followers are ready to march on Islamabad again, and many are watching to see what effect this may have on Sharif’s 14-month-old government.
While Khan expressed confident there would be a “tsunami” of as many as a million people marching toward Islamabad on Thursday, demanding Sharif’s resignation, Adnan Rehmat, a media analyst based in Islamabad was not among them
“I will not be at the PTI [Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf] march simply because I don’t agree with either this party’s politics or tactics,” Rehmat told MintPress News ahead of the demonstration.
Rehmat supports the electoral reforms that Khan’s party, the PTI, is fighting for, but he feels that parliament is a better place to “build the pressure for these needed reforms,” rather than “misdirected angry marches that are hurting the economy and eroding political spaces.”
With the 24-hour news cycle, meanwhile, he believes a TV studio would make an even better and more effective arena for political campaigning and mobilization. “Why this non-election time jalsa-jaloos [rally] nonsense?”
Mending fences at the eleventh hour
While addressing the nation in a last-minute gesture to resolve the political standoff on Tuesday, Sharif requested that the Supreme Court form a three-member judicial commission to investigate PTI’s allegations about election rigging in the May 2013 general elections.
Spurning Sharif’s offer, Khan said the protest would go on, as the probe would not be acceptable without the prime minister’s resignation.
Sharif, a businessman by trade and head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), was elected just 14 months ago in a landslide victory that made him prime minister for a third time. He promised the disgruntled nation that he would revive the failing economy, resolve the energy crises and fight militancy.
Over the past year, Khan has been a constant thorn in Sharif’s side, terming the general elections the “biggest fraud” in the country’s history.
Is the government overreacting?
“To be fair, Imran Khan has been going from pillar to post over the last year seeking relief and remedy to his complaint about vote rigging, but the government ignored him for too long,” Sen. Aitezaz Ahsan told MintPress, defending both Khan’s and PTI’s “constitutional and democratic right” to protest and demonstrate in a peaceful and non-violent manner.
He was talking over phone while travelling from Gujrat to Islamabad, in Punjab province, along the Great Trunk road that runs across the length of Pakistan. This major trade artery, he said, was “completely deserted.”
In the run up to Thursday’s march, the Punjab government had started blocking roads by putting down heavy containers to disrupt the smooth flow of traffic. “The government has caused enormous inconvenience in Punjab for millions of travellers by blocking roads,” he added.
Ahsan says these blockades — as well as the imposition of Section 144 of the Pakistani penal code, which prohibits more than five people from congregating — represent an “overreaction” on the part of the government.
On July 25, the government invoked Article 245 of the Pakistani Constitution, making the military responsible for securing the capital, citing what the government claims are reliable intelligence reports of possible terrorist attacks.
However, there is widespread suspicion that the government is using these supposed terrorist threats as a pretext to deploy the army in the capital in case the marches and sit-in turn violent.
“The government is making the same old mistake,” said senior journalist Zahid Hussain, adding that the government doesn’t seem to have “learned any lessons” from the past.
If there is a clash between the police and the marchers, Hussain says, things could get ugly and “the army will intervene.”
“For these men [Khan and ul-Qadri] of unbridled ambition, nothing could be better than a police overreaction leading to a slew of ‘martyrs’ for their so-called tsunami,” warned Islamabad-based Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a well-known physicist and peace activist.
With this in mind, Hoodbhoy says, the administration should measure its responses to their provocations very carefully.
An non-unified front
Not everyone is impressed with Khan’s show of street muscle, though.
Calling Khan and ul-Qadri “self-declared, narcissistic saviors,” Hoodbhoy told MintPress they may have “perfected the art of demagoguery, but are otherwise clueless about how to cure the sicknesses of our society.”
“I disagree with the approach taken by PTI, in particular that of Imran Khan, for removing the government using means that are extra-constitutional,” said Khawar Ahsan, a PTI voter and energy expert working in the private sector and living in Islamabad.
“Their struggle should confined to what is provided under our constitution and the prime minister can only be removed through a vote of no confidence in the national assembly. And as far as removal of members of Election Commission of Pakistan, the right forum is the Supreme Judicial Council, not the streets of Islamabad.”
Ahsan also believes the current government has done a decent job in the 14 months that it has been in power. “Most of our economic indicators are positive,” he said, giving examples such as the GDP growth rate, foreign exchange reserves, the Pakistani rupee’s parity with the U.S. dollar, Pakistan’s sovereign rating improving from “negative” to “stable,” and the strong focus on addressing power shortages, among other improvements.
“One must understand that these macro economic improvements will trickle down to the masses after some time,” he said.
Islamabad: a hornet’s nest
Khan has repeatedly said that the protests will be non-violent, but many fear it may still spiral out of control. Both he and ul-Qadri have been warning the government that if anything happens to them — they say they fear they may be assassinated — their followers should not spare the male members of the Sharif family.
Finding such diatribes extremely alarming, Ahsan says both ul-Qadri and Khan have “injected a dangerous element” to the environment of protest by talking of actually “killing people.”
Ul-Qadri has gone so far as to publicly state that his followers should not “spare anyone betraying and abandoning the Inqilab march,” as reported by Dawn.
“They are giving a very convenient alibi to the Taliban. If the latter wants to disturb the peace of the country, they can take potshot at these political leaders, resulting in self-generated chaos. The decibel level of such a movement will be unprecedented,” Ahsan warned.
With an ongoing military operation targeting the Taliban in North Waziristan, northern Pakistan, the group is likely angry, and the Taliban has unleashed attacks at public rallies in the past. Given everything that’s happening now with the marches and the Taliban, Ahsan sees the next few days as a tinderbox “waiting for a spark.”
Survival of democracy in question
“I hope democracy survives,” Sen. Ahsan said.
Omar R. Quraishi, editorial pages editor of the English language daily Express Tribune, told MintPress, “There seems to be a lot of uncertainty, and from what it seems, it is not heading to any desirable outcome — not least for Pakistan, which needs stability right now.”
There is also a nagging fear in some quarters that the army is attempting to make a comeback and using Khan as its civilian face.
“The only ‘proof,’ so to speak, came in the form of a much-publicized meeting between a former intelligence chief and one of Imran Khan’s close aides,” Quraishi said.
This suspicion has been alluded to by none other than the government, he said, with the information minister pointing toward “hidden hands” at work to topple the government.
Even the prime minister was recently quoted as saying: “It hurts and confuses me – who has given them these agendas?”
“The army is already quite powerful behind the scenes and doesn’t need to take over,” Quraishi explained. “If it does, the people will accept army rule, not least because civilian rule is painted as corrupt.”
Calling the two “a raging duo” who remain “unknown commodities,” referring to ul-Qadri’s vitriolic speech on Sunday and Khan’s sustained opposition to the war and military action against the Taliban, Ahsan concluded they would not have endeared themselves to the military. Instead, the military would be more comfortable dealing with a “humbled Nawaz Sharif,” a known commodity.
This theory was endorsed by Hussain, the journalist. He observed that as the PML-N not enjoying a particularly cozy relationship with the army, this situation may give the latter an opportunity to “cut him to size.”
A city on lockdown
Islamabad is littered with containers placed on main roads, trenches dug up at entry and exit points, and over 9,000 law enforcement officers gathered to stop PTI participants from entering the city.
That is why people like Rehmat are so upset. He feels the otherwise sleepy city has unnecessarily become a “hostage” in the battle of egos between the ruling PML-N and the PTI.
“To deal with the impending PTI march the government has roughly divided the city into four zones, and not just inter-zone, but intra-zone movement is severely restricted,” he said, adding that there are checkpoints everywhere with long queues of vehicles trying to just go from one neighborhood to another. “It’s ridiculous. The outskirts of Islamabad have several large open spaces where anyone can demonstrate a show of force. Please leave our city alone!”
It’s worse for the motorcyclists, according to Muhammad Nadeem, who works as a driver in a non-profit organization.
He comes to Islamabad every day from the garrison city of Rawalpindi — a trip that takes him roughly 40 minutes.
“Traveling between Rawalpindi to Islamabad is a hassle even at the best of times, but for the last two weeks it has become progressively worse,” he told MintPress.
Though not a supporter of PTI, he admitted hesitantly that he feels Khan may have some solutions, like creating access to the court that people can actually afford.
For the past few days, Nadeem says, he has been stopped and asked why he is traveling to Islamabad.
“Why should I have to answer this stupid question? I can go anywhere I like — why should I be suspected of something that Imran Khan and his party are doing?” he said.