Pakistani opposition seeks to end Imran Khan’s “puppet rule”

Workers are decorating the site of a protest by the democratic movement in Pakistan
A major protest is being held in Peshawar

Pakistan’s opposition parties are constantly putting pressure on Imran Khan, holding a series of mass protests against his government.

They claim the prime minister came to power in the 2018 elections, which were rigged with military support.

Demonstrators protested on Sunday in the town of Peshawar, despite government threats to ban rallies to curb growing coronavirus cases.

The prime minister, who came to power on the anti-corruption platform, said the aim of the campaign was to blackmail the rejection of corruption cases against opposition leaders.

Pakistan’s mighty soldier denies interfering in politics, and Khan denies the allegations that helped him win.

The next general election will only be possible until 2023.

Who is behind the meetings?

The Democratic Movement of Pakistan (PDM) has held a series of mass demonstrations since 16 October. Its members range from the right-wing religious group to the centrist and center-left central parties, as well as secular nationalists.

Rallies were held in three of the country’s four provinces – Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. Sunday was the first held by PDM in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The meeting was attended by senior opposition political leaders, including Maulana Fazlur Rehman, vice-president of Pakistan’s Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Maryam Nawaz Sharif, and President of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

Opposition parties say they want to decide what they claim to represent a “non-representative” leadership, accusing Mr Khan’s government of putting pressure on the judiciary and mismanaging the economy.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (L) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (not seen) are talking to journalists at a joint press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan on 19 November 2020.
Protesters claim Prime Minister Imran Khan came to power in a rigged election

The PDM is the latest of a number of political coalitions that aim to restore “real” democracy in Pakistan’s perpetual civil-military conflict. This is exacerbated by the return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to public policy.

In an unprecedented move by the former prime minister, Mr. Sharif directly criticized two senior military officials: General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the army chief, and Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, head of the ISI military intelligence agency. He claimed that they were responsible for Pakistan’s political and economic troubles.

What do the meetings tell us?

The rallies held so far in Gujranwala, Karachi and Quetta have taken place despite obstacles and even some arrests by the authorities. Mr Sharif’s son-in-law, Safdar Awan, was arrested in his hotel room early in the morning after the October 19 meeting in Karachi.

The arrest caused disruption to both the government and the military after footage of the raid appeared, showing security personnel broke into Mr Awan’s room while he slept with his wife.

It was later reported that hours before the raid, the police chief of Sindh (whose capital is Karachi’s boss) was taken from his residence to the secret service office and forced to sign Mr. Awan’s arrest warrant.

Subsequently, the entire officer corps of Sindhi police requested “freedom of protest,” which was postponed when the army chief announced that he had launched an in-house investigation into the alleged kidnapping of the police chief.

But although the army chief has ordered the removal of certain ISI and military officials, no visible action has been taken against them yet. Authorities have also put pressure on the media to censor some speeches at rallies.

During live coverage of the protests, television channels always cut back to the studio when Mr. Sharif starts the video link from London or when nationalist leaders like Mohsin Dawar get on the spokesperson.

These leaders criticized the army, accused him of enforced disappearances, human rights abuses, and steered the Khan government behind the scenes.

Did they cheat the election?

Pre-election polls in 2018 predicted a clear majority for PML-N, but Imran Khan’s PTI ultimately won by a thin margin.

Khan and his team say they won because voters had had enough of corruption during the previous governments led by Sharif’s PML-N party and former president Asif Zardari’s PPP.

But independent observers raised questions about the integrity of the process until election day.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) called the structure “the dirtiest, most micro-managed and most intensively practiced practice in the country’s history.” There were widespread allegations that the military tried to swing the election in favor of Mr Khan, including allegations that intelligence agencies had intimidated opposition politicians to switch to his party.

International observers also raised concerns. Michael Gahler, head of the European Union election observation mission in Pakistan, told the vote that the mission “made systematic attempts to undermine the ruling party” before the vote “through corruption, judicial contempt and terrorist charges.

The HRCP also said it was concerned about the presence of security forces in the polling stations and claimed that some polling stations had been taken over by the military after voting was over and pollsters were fired from the polling stations.

“There has been no example of what happened in Pakistan’s election history since the vote closed,” the HRCP report said.

EU observers reported similar findings, saying “army personnel were mentioned at the polling stations observed and some cases were reported when they interfered in polling procedures or instructed party agents to remain outside the polling stations”.

“Counting was sometimes problematic, with EU observers assessing the counting process as positive in only two-thirds of the observations,” the EU report concluded.

Mr Gahler said the mission did not observe direct election fraud on polling day, but concluded that there was “no equality of opportunity” between the parties and that “the overall process was not as good as in 2013” – referring to previous elections.

Allegations of human rights abuses have been attacked by state bodies since election day. Media censorship increased, and journalists who painted the military in a negative light faced threats.

Senator Shibili Faaraz, the government’s minister for information and broadcasting, said in a statement that “there is no civil-military rift.”

“As for the 2018 elections, the PTI came to power with the support and votes of the people of Pakistan. It’s really that simple, and it’s time for the BBC and other foreign press to recognize that,” he said.

What’s happening now?

No one can be sure where the current protest movement is leading. But everyone knows that the fight is going on between politicians and the military, Prime Minister Imran Khan is seen by his opponents as the latter.

Opposition rallies not only questioned the legitimacy of his government, but also posed a direct challenge to military and ISI leaders in a country where civil-military tensions and coups took place.

The last popular uprising was in 2008, when General Pervez Musharraf was ousted and the constitution restored.

Since then, the country has witnessed what analysts called a “hybrid military regime” in 2018.

Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert on the Pakistani army, believes the leaders of the army and the ISI have seemed weak due to recent opposition protests.

To ensure the supremacy of the constitution, members of the opposition alliance need to develop a “core competency that would allow for convincing civil-military dialogue and repression,” Siddiqa said.

He also said he would “be willing to settle comprehensive socio-political and socio-economic relations beyond winning elections.”

The coming weeks and months will show whether the new opposition alliance will be able to achieve their goals.

Updated November 24, 2020: This article has been updated to clarify the source of the reference to the “dirtiest” election Pakistani history and additional references should be added to the EU report on the integrity of the 2018 elections. A statement from the Pakistani Minister of Information and Broadcasting was also added in response to the original article.