Explained: Why Opposition Protests In Pakistan Against Imran Khan And Army Are Very Different From Those Seen In The Past 

Explained: Why Opposition Protests In Pakistan Against Imran Khan And Army Are Very Different From Those Seen In The Past Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. 
Snapshot
  • The messaging at the joint Opposition rallies is not limited to job losses, rising prices, power cuts and other economic difficulties.

    In the spotlight now is Pakistan Army’s role in propping up Imran Khan.

For the first two-and-a-half years of his term as Prime Minister, Imran Khan was on the offensive against the Opposition parties in Pakistan.

Guided by the Army, which had brought him to power, Khan jailed Opposition leaders, including former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former President Asif Ali Zardari, and drove the Opposition into a corner on corruption charges.

With its back against the wall, and sensing an opportunity at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the economic crises resulting from mismanagement by Khan’s government, the Opposition is now pushing back.

However, the protests seen over the past few weeks are very different from those Pakistan has seen over the last two decades.

One, all major political parties in the opposition have joined hands.

Three major parties — Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur) — have formed an alliance called the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) along with at least eight other regional and state parties.

Nawaz has been in London since November 2019, when the Lahore High Court permitted him to go outside the country for treatment. Maryam Nawaz, Sharif’s daughter, has now become the face of the party.

With Zardari taking a back seat due to “several illnesses” after coming out of jail, his son Bilawal Bhutto has been leading the party.

While the two have been very active in the Opposition’s joint struggle against Khan, the leadership of the PDM has been given to Rehman to avoid power-sharing conflicts between the two dynasts from PML-N and PPP.

In two rallies held so far, one in Karachi, and the other in Gujranwala, the Opposition has managed to attract tens of thousands of supporters.

Two, the messaging at the joint Opposition rallies is not limited to job losses, rising prices, power cuts and other economic difficulties.

In the spotlight now is Pakistan Army’s role in propping up Khan’s party through forced defections from PML-N and PPP, the rigging of the election in his favour and its interference in the making of defence and foreign policy.

In speeches delivered at Opposition rallies via video link from London, Sharif has attacked the Army for political interference. He has gone so far as to name the current Army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, during his speech, saying he was responsible for toppling his government and installing Khan as Prime Minister.

“General Qamar Javed Bajwa, you packed up our government, which was working well, and put the nation and the country at the altar of your wishes,” the former Prime Minister of Pakistan said in one of his speeches.

“Bajwa is responsible for rigging the 2018 elections, curbs on the media...and forcing judges to give decisions of his choice,” Sharif added.

The Pakistan Army, Sharif said, has become a “state above the state”.

He has said that the Opposition’s struggle is not against Khan, but those who installed him — the military-intelligence establishment.

Sharif’s move is extraordinary because no other leader of his stature in Pakistan has criticised a sitting Army chief in a political rally the way he has, let alone accusing him of rigging an election and interfering in policy-making.

It is significant because Sharif’s political power is concentrated in Punjab, the state from which the Pakistan Army draws a bulk of its officers and soldiers and also its influence and legitimacy as the most powerful institution in the country.

Experts said Sharif has taken a calculated risk in attacking the Army.

“..Nawaz is taking a carefully calculated gamble. He has rattled the cage and got the traction... Merely targeting Imran would have been banal; firing salvos at Bajwa is revolutionary. It...forces the military to rethink the political costs that it is now having to pay for its failed political experiment of installing Imran,” Sushant Sareen, a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, wrote recently.

How has Imran Khan responded?

Over the past few months, Imran Khan has tried to portray himself as the one in control even when it is clear that the Pakistan Army remains the dominant player in the alliance between him and the generals.

To assert his authority, Imran Khan recently said he would have 'sacked' the army chief had a war with India been started without informing him. He was hitting out at Sharif, who was not in the know when the Pakistan Army under General Pervez Musharraf was planning and executing the Kargil war with India.

He has also tried to drum up nationalistic fervour in favour of the Army by accusing Sharif of taking 'help' from India in his struggle against the government.

On multiple issues, including foreign and defence policy, Imran Khan has said the government and the Army are on the same page.

Actions against the Opposition have also continued. Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz Sharif, was arrested on money-laundering charges in late September.

Captain Mohammad Safdar, husband of Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz, was arrested a day after the joint Opposition rally in Karachi.

Bajwa is caught in a quandary.

The opposition’s attacks against the Army have found support. This could be a result of the closeness between the Army and the Imran Khan government if not a consequence of its repeated interference in politics and policy making.

The Imran Khan government’s failure to deliver on its promises of a “new Pakistan” free from corruption has made it a liability on the Army, experts say. But there’s little Bajwa and his cronies can do to change this.

By installing Imran Khan as the face of the government, Bajwa has not only managed to run the show from behind without accountability but also got a three-year service extension. This makes removing Imran Khan from power a risky proposition for Bajwa.

At the same time, no action from Bajwa to save the Army from Opposition’s attacks may not go down well with other generals of the Pakistan Army who are having to wait for their turn longer than they expected.

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