Protests, sit-ins hurt Pakistan's economy

A far-right wing political party is threatening to lock down the capital next month until PM Imran Khan quits

By Shahab Jafry

Published: Wed 18 Sep 2019, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Wed 18 Sep 2019, 11:18 PM

You'd be forgiven for thinking, given Pakistan's current political climate, that any further trouble from the opposition would be the least of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's problems right now. His one quantifiable achievement over the last year, at least in his point of view, has been rounding up Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) big guns on corruption charges and submitting them, as promised on the campaign trail, to the interrogation chambers of the accountability bureau.
And it's been a while, frankly, since a former president or prime minister, or too many of their spoiled, rich children, accused him of being planted, selected, etc., by the military.
So what should he make of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal's (JUI-F) threat of locking down the capital in October/November and not budging until Imran leaves office? Now this isn't just your ordinary right wing, politically ambitious, religious outfit with a string of madrassas (seminaries) full of loyal adherents across the frontier region.
It was born, like most of Pakistan's far-right political parties on religious missions, in the last days of Afghanistan's famous anti-Soviet 'jihad' of the '80s. And its head, the notorious Maulana Fazlur Rahman, has had a seat in the national assembly, one way or the other, since 1988; until, that is, Imran Khan's PTI swept the general election last year.
Among other prominent positions, the maulana has been chairman of the standing committee for foreign affairs, leader of the opposition, and chairman of the special national assembly committee on Kashmir. And it was no secret in newsrooms that around 2007 he tried to lobby then US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, for Uncle Sam's support in his bid to become prime minister.
Even now, when he finds himself thrown out of the House for the first time in three decades, his party commands 15 MNAs (Members of National Assembly) and four senators, in addition to the opposition leader's position in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provincial assembly. He is, in short, no push over.
He's been trying to get the opposition together since about half an hour after election results were announced last July. And he finally succeeded in collecting everybody stung by PTI at a Multi-Party Conference a couple of months ago on a more or less one-point agenda: forcing the PTI government to step down.
That is why they've finally decided to march onto the capital and simply shut it down. PPP's opted out, no doubt because it expects Maulana and Company to come back empty handed, but PML-N's surprisingly decided to play along. And from now till Oct/Nov, the time of the siege, they'll try and get as many smaller opposition parties onto the band wagon as possible.
If all goes according to plan, they'll be returning with Imran's scalp before New Year's. Just one problem.
I've observed the most famous of our few high-level sit-ins or long marches from newsrooms, even covered little bits from the ground, yet I've never understood why political parties or ordinary people still believe in them. No better example than Imran's own 124-day protest in 2014 when PTI members descended on Islamabad from up and down the country, effectively bringing the capital to a standstill.
Back then, when the maulana was Nawaz Sharif's partner in government, the old guard accused the establishment of nudging Imran along in order to break the central government; since Nawaz had fallen foul of the military. And anybody who knows somebody who knew somebody in ISI was shouting for anybody to hear that the government would fall by sundown, or tomorrow, day after at the most.
Yet nothing happened. Just like nobody was sent packing when another cleric, Tahirul Qadri, suddenly came out of nowhere in 2012 to bring down the Zardari administration. He, by the way, also partnered with Imran two years later against Nawaz, with an eerily similar result - the government survived.
The only thing that did suffer a knock-out blow, though, was the economy. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping was forced to delay his landmark CPEC unveiling trip by a whole year.
So what's Fazlur got now that'll tilt the scales in his favour? Unlike Imran five years ago, as per his own admission and accusation, maulana's not even on the right side of the so-called establishment? So why all the optimism? Bilawal Bhutto clearly can't see much in this beyond the chest thumping, hence his decision to extend only moral support. But what's convinced Nawaz Sharif that this time will be different?
And would you just look at all the people that always throng to these events; even staging nightly concerts, in PTI's case, amid the iconic "Go Nawaz Go" chants every night? It's ironic, to say the least, that they congregate in such large numbers, ignoring their families and jobs, to record a protest that will hurt not the government, opposition or establishment at the end of the day, rather only the wider economy and their own livelihoods; only the future of their children.
Imran can, for all intents and purposes, simply write this one off even though JUI-F's leverage with the madrassas gives it more staying power than most players on the scene. Yet try as the maulana might, and all those who join him, the best that can be achieved before everyone eventually packs up and leaves is degrading the economy, and the lot of the common man.
Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Pakistan

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