An anti-government protest in Pakistan organized by a new alliance of opposition political parties drew tens of thousands of people on Friday in scenes described by opponents of prime ministers as the beginning of the end for Imran Khan.
Friday’s protest in Gujranwala was the first organized by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of 11 opposition political parties that united to oust Khan from power.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the PDM, said: This is an illegal government. It was forced on us by the establishment. We reject this illegal rule.
The day before the rally, the government carried out mass detentions and arrests of around 500 opposition figures and activists, mainly from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party.
Ahsan Iqbal, general secretary of the PML-N, described how at midnight, on the eve of the demonstration, the police jumped over the walls of our workers’ house in Gujranwala and Punjab. They have arrested hundreds of our workers and registered hundreds of bogus records.
In three decades of political experience, I have seen martial law imposed but never witnessed this kind of brutality, Iqbal said. Raids against our workers are still going on. They’ve put containers in our way, arrested workers, and tore up banners, but we won’t stop. It’s the beginning of the end for Khan.
The PDM alliance, which was formed last month, is the first time in Pakistan’s history that all opposition political parties have come together to challenge military interference in politics. The three main opposition parties PML-N, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) are at the forefront of the movement.
Party leaders allege that the military, which wields enormous unchecked power in Pakistan, rigged the 2018 elections that brought the Khans Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party to power, and that its administration is just one puppet for the military diary.
Iqbal said: We don’t need the involvement of the military establishment in politics. It must stop. That is why all the opposition will come together today. There is only one way to advance democracy in Pakistan without military engagement.
The rally is the first of many demonstrations and public meetings that the PDM has planned over the next few weeks, before embarking on a long march to parliament in the capital, Islamabad, in January 2021 to demand that Khan resign. Opposition leaders have said they will use mass resignations and no-confidence votes in parliament to topple the government.
The protests come at a time when the Khan government struggles to cope with severe economic decline, unemployment and the worst inflation rates in Asia, sparking a sharp rise in food prices that has led to dissatisfaction with mass.
Pakistanis’ dire economic situation has been made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, with the country’s economy contracting for the first time in 68 years in June.
Pakistan is considered to have handled the pandemic relatively well so far, reporting just 322,000 cases and 6,621 deaths in a population of 220 million, well below neighboring India. However, there are fears that complacency will pave the way for a second wave.
At the Friday rally, for which 50,000 people crowded into the stadium, no social distancing was imposed and no face masks were visible on those in the crowd or on political leaders.
Banners bearing the faces of former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were waved by the crowd. Waseem Ahmed Khan, a resident of Rawalpindi, said he was there for a democratic Pakistan where everyone will be responsible and accountable.
He said: Since Imran Khan came to power, my monthly expenses have doubled to 300. Even then, it is difficult to feed my family with this amount because the Pakistani rupee has depreciated so much. Is this the new Pakistan Imran Khan campaigned for? It is not for the poor, of course.
Liaqat Ali Qureshi, who had traveled from the nearby town of Gujrat to attend the rally, said: The government is crushing the poor. We were happy in our old Pakistan but Imran Khan made false promises of a new Pakistan and looted us.
He added: Everyone knows he was appointed prime minister by those who have controlled Pakistani politics for over seven decades: the military establishment.
There have been multiple arrests of senior opposition officials in retaliation for mounting anti-government criticism. Last month, anti-corruption forces arrested Shehbaz Sharif, leader of the PML-N, and the brother of three-time former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was sentenced to prison for corruption.
Last year Sharif, 70, was granted eight weeks bail to travel to the UK for medical treatment, but courts now consider the courts to have fled. Pakistani authorities are trying to get him back from the UK. Despite the government’s ban on broadcasting Sharif’s speeches, he was to address the Friday rally by satellite phone from London.
This week, an arrest warrant was also issued against former President Asif Ali Zardari, husband of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and a senior PPP official.
Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, a spokesperson for the PPP, said the Khan government is doing what an authoritarian regime does.
Khokhar said: The government uses all methods, from arrests to blocking roads, to prevent us from protesting. They launched bogus lawsuits against opposition parties and leaders. I will not call it an elected government.
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