PAKISTAN’S KHAN TESTED BUT NOT TOPPLED BY WEEK OF PROTESTS
▶ With about 50,000 people camped out in the capital, the prime minister faces another major challenge
Nearly a week after as many as 50,000 people descended on Pakistan’s capital to demand the removal of Prime Minister Imran Khan, both he and the protesters are still there.
What began as a march led by the hardline Jamiat Ulemae-Islam (JUI-F) party has now become a sit-in while the party leader flexes his political muscle and negotiates with the government and opposition.
Each night for the past week, Mullah Fazlur Rehman has spoken to the crowd denouncing Mr Khan’s government, saying it was ushered in with military help after a rigged election and is ruining the country.
Then, each day he holds talks with the government and fellow opposition parties demanding Mr Khan step down and that new elections are held.
“We will stay as long as the maulana [mullah] orders us to,” said Shah Nawaz, a madrassah teacher from Balochistan.
The sheer number of people mobilised by Mr Rehman from seminaries and party networks has created the first significant political challenge to Mr Khan since he rose to power 16 months ago.
Thousands of police reinforcements have been drafted and main roads to the district housing parliament and ministries are sealed off.
The display of party political power has also enlivened an opposition that had appeared fractured and subdued under a barrage of anti-corruption investigations that have locked up many of its leaders.
The encampment on the side of an Islamabad motorway, about eight kilometres from the country’s Parliament, is disciplined and well organised. Protesters arrived in convoys of buses and minivans complete with bedding, tents and supplies.
A force of khaki-clad volunteers keep order among the crowds passing the time praying and chatting. Their gripes are political, economic and religious. There is anger at the election result and frustration at price rises and an economic slump.
“I am here to demolish this government. It’s a fake government,” said Saleh Mohammad, a farmer from the poverty-stricken province of Balochistan, who arrived with a dozen friends.
Fayzan Rehman, 32, who runs a small businessman came from the capital and said he joined in because he was “fed up with what has been going on for the last year and a half”.
“Business has declined. If you see my worksheet for the past five years, I was in profit and for the past six months, my income is almost zero,” he said.
“I have seen the level of commitment and the mood is rising. For me, it has become a movement. Whether they achieve their goal or not, they have exposed the government.”
Other complaints among the faithful of the right-wing party are more hardline religious. Several alleged Mr Khan was a Jewish agent, or bemoaned the release of Asia Bibi, the Christian farmhand who fled abroad this year when her death penalty was quashed after she was falsely accused of blasphemy.
Mr Rehman at first gave Mr Khan a 48-hour ultimatum to quit. The prime minister refused. The larger opposition groups have also been lukewarm in their support for his sit-in.
Mr Khan’s special adviser on information and broadcasting, Firdous Ashiq Awan, yesterday called Mr Rehman “politically isolated”.
“Maulana should step out of self-deception and [stop] bothering the public. You have failed in [your] scheme. Do not attack the democratic process and insult the public mandate like the others who were rejected in the general elections,” she said.
Yet the size of the JUI-F mobilisation has forced Mr Khan’s government to have several days of negotiations with Mr Rehman. Yesterday, they were still deadlocked.
Mr Rehman’s demand for the prime minister’s resignation has been rejected, but Defence Minister Pervez Khattak, who is leading the government’s negotiation team, said he is “still hopeful of finding a middle ground”.
Such ground could potentially include promises to reform the election commission and hold the next general election without military involvement, said Muhammad Amir Rana, a political and security analyst.
The military appears to still back Mr Khan.
A statement from Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, chief of the army staff, this week said no one would be allowed to undermine stability.
As Daud Jan, an Islamabad hospital worker, wandered around the site out of curiosity, he predicted the show of people power would ultimately not dislodge Mr Khan.
“Sure, it’s a big number, but it’s not dangerous for Imran Khan’s government. People still believe in him.”
But the display could potentially embolden the bigger opposition parties to challenge Mr Khan themselves in the coming months, Mr Rana said.
Maulana should step out of self-deception and stop bothering the public. You have failed in your scheme FIRDOUS ASHIQ AWAN President’s special adviser on information and broadcasting
Supporters of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam listen to leaders during the Freedom March, called by the opposition in Islamabad, to protest against the government