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Opposition drive may not dislodge Pakistan premier

In its fourth month, the opposition’s anti-government campaign features public gatherings in large cities, and warns of en masse resignations.

By Waqar Mustafa

Published: Thu 14 Jan 2021, 9:31 PM

In Pakistan, inflation — at 8 per cent in December — stays untamed. And so does gas shortage, hitting industries and households hard. These issues could spur people already groaning under a crunch caused by the Corona virus to rally in support of an opposition combine. And they have, in large numbers, but not as large as the 11-party Pakistan Democratic Movement demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who they say was installed in a rigged 2018 election, would have hoped for.

In its fourth month, the opposition’s anti-government campaign features public gatherings in large cities, and warns of en masse resignations, and a long march towards the capital Islamabad in what it calls “decisive” phase of the nationwide agitation to force Khan’s resignation and snap polls. The next general elections are due in 2023.

The opposition has attempted to put pressure on the government before as well. In 2019, its no-trust motion against Sadiq Sanjrani, the government-backed chairman of the upper house of parliament, the Senate, could not get enough votes to remove him from office. The Senate comprises 103 members. Of that number, 100 voted. The opposition motion had 64 votes in its favour. In a secret ballot a short time later, however, only 50 senators voted to oust him — just short of the 53 required, leaving the opposition to cry foul. Five votes were rejected.

In winter that year, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) party who now heads the opposition alliance, mounted a challenge to Imran Khan’s government leading a protest that Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz of former premier Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Peoples’ Party of former president Asif Ali Zardari as well as nationalist and secular parties supported. Himself not having been able to make it to parliament in the 2018 general elections, Rahman called on opposition lawmakers to resign from the legislature protesting “rigging”. This protest, meant to call for the removal of the “illegitimate” government, which he claimed was imposed on the nation by “stealing the people’s vote”, ended after a few days.

The allegations remain the same. And so does the denial. A military spokesman has said: “When it comes to criticism or allegations levelled, the army is doing its job.

“We have our hands full and we neither want to get involved in such things nor will we. We have stayed the course [and] we will stay the course.”

In a reference to PDM’s statements, he said “the type of allegations that are being levelled have no weight”, and cited the allegation about the 2018 elections not being fair.

“The incumbent government asked the army to conduct elections and the army conducted them with full responsibility and integrity.

“After that, if anyone has any problem regarding that, then all Pakistani institutions are working and they are the ones who have to decide on that and they should be approached,” he said.

Referring to rising political tensions in the country, he said: “This is truly not a good thing [...] but all said and done, the army is a subordinate institution of the government.”

“Army neither has the need to interfere in political matters nor should attempts be made to drag it in.”

This time, says Rahman, they “will play their cards carefully”. The opposition has decided to contest the bye-elections scheduled for February and the Senate polls likely to be held by March this year after certain leaders warned that PDM’s mass resignations would only increase their parliamentary marginalisation. The opposition will lose its veto majority in the Senate after the four provincial assemblies will elect one half of the Senate to fresh six-year terms next year. Khan’s party – the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf – holds majority in three of the four provinces. Already, Khan has said the government will hold elections for the vacated seats if the opposition resigns from assemblies. He describes the protest as “more [of] a ploy” to distract from the anti-corruption drive against the PDM leaders.

The long march too will have its own challenges such as mobilising thousands of workers across the country, taking on a massive state apparatus, arranging a prolonged sit-in in the capital and keeping themselves united. A few top leaders of Rahman’s party have already parted ways.

Even if the PDM pulls the long march off successfully, it is unlikely to secure Imran Khan’s removal from office. Though the pretext of civil unrest has been used three times in Pakistan’s history to unseat governments, a premature exit of the Khan-led regime is highly unlikely. Khan is not out of favour of the powers-that-be. And the opposition sounds unclear on whether it wants to have him voted out of office through a no-confidence move in parliament. So, any decision to stand down will always rest with Khan himself!

Waqar Mustafa is a multimedia journalist and commentator based in Lahore, Pakistan 

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