Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice (PTI) party has announced that its lawmakers will resign from parliament to try to force PM Nawaz Sharif to step down.
Khan’s party announced on Monday, August 18, that it would also withdraw from three out of four provincial assemblies, however, its lawmakers from the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which it governs, will not resign.
The anti-government protesters, who marched on Islamabad over the weekend, are staging a sit-in in the capital, demanding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to quit.
Earlier, the cricketer-turned-politician called for a country-wide “civil disobedience” movement against the incumbent government.
Pakistani-Canadian Sunni cleric, Tahir-ul-Qadri, led a separate march on Islamabad. Both Khan and Qadri claim the May 2013 elections, in which PM Sharif’s Muslim League party won a landslide victory, were rigged, and that the government is corrupt and incompetent.
The anti-Sharif rallies kicked off on Thursday, August 14 march, which coincided with the country’s Independence Day, culminated in a sit-in outside the parliament building and is likely to continue for days as the protesters say they won’t leave Islamabad until PM Sharif tenders his resignation.
One last effort to reconcile
In a televised address to the nation on Wednesday, August 13, Premier Sharif offered the opposition groups to set up a judicial commission to investigate allegations of election fraud. Both Khan and Qadri rejected it.
“Stay here until the revolution. This revolution heralds change. We want the rule of law in the country,” Qadri told his supporters in the eastern city of Lahore – a Sharif stronghold.
“If you succeed, then there will be justice in Pakistan and people all around the world will respect the country,” Khan told his supporters before embarking on the journey to Islamabad.
Experts say that many Pakistanis – frustrated with lawlessness, unemployment, frequent power outages and inflation in the country – are hoping for change. However, Qadri and Khan, they say, are using the situation to their advantage.
Observers expect hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of the capital by August 14-15 midnight, defying the government’s ban on mass congregations.
The possibility of military intervention
Shamoon Hashmi, an Islamabad-based civil society activist and TV anchor, says the objectives of the march are unclear: “There is confusion all over. Khan demanded reforms in the electoral system, and that a commission be formed to investigate alleged rigging; the PM accepted both demands. So what does the opposition want now?” Hashmi asked.
Hashmi says that even if Sharif left his post as demanded by Khan and Qadri, he and the leader of the opposition in parliament – a member of former president Asif Ali Zardari’s PPP party – would have to agree on a caretaker government. “Do Khan an Qadri hope there will be a supra-constitutional system? How can that be democratic?” the activist told DW.
And that’s when many in the nuclear-armed Islamic republic question the motives of the march. A number of pro-democracy activists believe the protest rallies have the backing of Pakistan’s ubiquitous army. Despite the fact that both Khan and Qadri have repeatedly said that they will not support a military intervention, Pakistanis fear a coup-in-making.
The military is wary of Sharif’s cordial moves towards the country’s regional arch-rival India. The PM and the army are also not on the same page over the Islamic republic’s Afghanistan policy, and more so on the future of the detained former military chief and ex-president, Pervez Musharraf.
“I don’t think Pakistan’s military has any desire to be directly saddled with the unprecedented challenges the government faces now; it much prefers to influence matters from behind the scenes. In other words, the time isn’t right for the military to take over,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, in a DW interview.
Fear of violence
Kugelman, however, fears there might be violence during the protests. “My sense is that these protests will make a lot of noise, unfortunately violence will occur, and the Sharif-led government will look bad in forcefully putting down some of the demonstrations,” he said.
“But it shall end there. The government will come away looking weak and wounded – and scared – but it will remain in power. And for that, government critics could at least claim half a victory.”
Saira Abbas, a PTI activist, admits it won’t be easy to force Sharif to step down. However, “if there is bloodshed during the march, other political parties might join the anti-government rallies,” she told DW, adding that it would be the end of Sharif’s rule.
Sharif’s supporters say the country is facing enormous challenges ranging from an economic crisis to a protracted Islamist insurgency, and that it is certainly not prudent on the part of Qadri and Khan to destabilize the government at this stage.