ISLAMABAD (BLOOMBERG) – Pakistan is bracing for more protests as an alliance of opposition parties builds momentum for a nationwide series of rallies calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The 11-party group called the Pakistan Democratic Movement will follow up its two rallies over the weekend with a third on Sunday (Oct 25), presenting Mr Khan’s administration with its biggest political challenge yet as it tries to manage a backlash over soaring food prices. Pakistan is importing sugar, tomatoes and the most wheat in a decade to stabilise prices after the South Asian nation witnessed its first economic contraction in about seven decades following a coronavirus lockdown.
At the same time, the government’s crackdown on opposition groups and the media has intensified. In an unprecedented move, two former prime ministers, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Nawaz Sharif, along with the current prime minister of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Raja Farooq Haider, have been charged with treason for criticising the military.
A few hours after an opposition rally in Karachi on Sunday, the police arrested Safdar Awan – the husband of Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the daughter and political heir of Sharif. He secured a bail from Sindh High Court yesterday.
Pakistan’s powerful military commanders are also facing unusual criticism from opposition parties who have accused them of meddling in politics and toppling governments, intensifying the pressure on Mr Khan’s pro-army administration.
Former premier Sharif accused army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and General Faiz Hameed, the head of the country’s spy agency, of conspiring to topple his previous government to help bring Mr Khan to power.
His claim – made in a speech from London at a rally in Gujranwala last Friday – set the tone for the rallies that aim to oust Mr Khan from power within three months.
The army has always been criticised for its outsized role in politics and governance, but “this is the first time its top leadership has been named for ousting elected governments”, said Mr Naeem Ahmed, the chairman of international relations department at the University of Karachi.
The opposition parties are “feeling insecure after a third political force emerged on the political horizon and formed a government with the clear support of the military establishment”, he said.
Analysts have long seen army support as critical for Mr Khan’s party, which holds just 46 per cent of the seats in Parliament and relies on smaller coalition partners to stay afloat. A survey by Gallup Pakistan last month found 47 per cent hold Mr Khan’s government responsible for destroying the economy, while 41 per cent disagreed. A majority of 51 per cent agreed the army should stay out of politics, while 40 per cent said it has a role in politics and overall management of the country, the survey found.
Mr Khan’s “body language” shows he is worried, according to Ms Shaista Tabassum, a political analyst from Karachi.
“Nawaz Sharif has gone for a head on collision with the establishment,” the former chairman of the department of international relations at the University of Karachi, said on the phone, referring to the army.
“The opposition alliance is building a momentum around their common agenda of ousting Imran Khan. The establishment is very intelligent and it will not stand behind a government which is fast losing popularity.”
The army, which has directly ruled Pakistan for about half of its existence since 1947, has taken a more active role in policymaking beyond foreign and national security issues following Gen Bajwa’s move to meet top business leaders privately to find ways to boost the economy.
The military has been instrumental in getting rival political parties to coordinate during the pandemic while former and current officers are running key government programmes including China’s Belt and Road projects in Pakistan and Mr Khan’s main economic stimulus housing programme.
While the military has not responded to the opposition’s criticism, Mr Khan vowed to defend the army, while accusing Sharif of following a “pro-India agenda”.
Mr Khan also has to worry about a decision on Friday by the Financial Action Task Force whether to keep Pakistan in the “grey” monitoring list or downgrade it to the black list, which may bring global sanctions. The country has been on the monitoring list since 2018 due to deficiencies in money laundering and terrorist financing controls.
Sharif had his seven-year imprisonment in a corruption case suspended by the Islamabad High Court almost a year ago to seek medical treatment in London. He was disqualified by the Supreme Court in 2017 for not declaring his assets, a verdict that Sharif says was handed out under army chief Bajwa’s pressure. He was the prime minister twice in the 1990s and from 2013 to 2017 for a third time but he never completed his term.
“Nawaz Sharif has crossed the point of no return,” said Mr Burzine Waghmar, a member of the Centre for the Study of Pakistan at SOAS University of London. “I do not think Khan-Bajwa will buckle under pressure despite the growing dissatisfaction across the country. For now they both will have to rough it out.”