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Criticism of military in Pakistan’s Opposition rallies is unprecedented

While the Pakistani military may be inclined to negotiate with opposition parties, Imran Khan’s unwillingness to do so has proved awkward and, arguably, something of an irritant

For a country as famously unpredictable as Pakistan, the regularity of its dispiriting pattern of politics can be hard to explain. Periodic waves of popular protest, each riding on the back of ever-higher expectations of democratic change, soon recede to expose an entrenched pattern of power, which has remained broadly constant for more than seven decades.

There is little to suggest that the latest round of opposition protests against Prime Minister Imran Khan will be any different.

The familiar ring is hard to miss. Midway through its term of office, an elected government faces demands to step down from disaffected parties, who accuse it of corruption or electoral malpractice. The memory of Khan’s container driven politics, which led to the ousting of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 2017, is still fresh.

This time a loose alliance under the banner of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Jamiat-ul Ulama i- Islam-Fazlur Rahman (JUI-F), is again seeking the resignation of the government before the end of its term in 2023.

Opposition parties have accused Khan of complicity in rigging the 2018 elections to favour his “selection” as prime minister — accusations that have been amplified by claims of widespread irregularities in recent polls held in Gilgit-Baltistan, where Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party is set to form the government.

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As in the past, the current protests have met with the familiar drumbeat of a military-security establishment, which has warned opposition leaders against acting as agents of “foreign interests” looking to exploit chinks in Pakistan’s armour. And as before, these insinuations of treason have been rejected by opposition parties insisting on their right to protest against an illegitimate government and a prime minister they describe as a “puppet”.

Other tried and tested methods from the past are also in play. A crackdown on dissent, the harassment of opposition activists, the orchestration of divisions in opposition ranks, and the use of religious parties to diffuse attention or fuel the fire, are all in evidence.

In October, the body responsible for issuing media licences (the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority or Pemra), barred television channels from broadcasting the speeches of “proclaimed offenders”. The Opposition dismissed it as a ploy to stifle publicity for Sharif, who is currently in London for medical treatment, and vowed to defy the ban.

In one of the most egregious cases of harassment, security officials also forced Karachi’s police chief to sign an arrest warrant for Sharif’s son-in-law, Safdar Awan, who was seized in his hotel room at night after attending an opposition rally in the city in October. The arrest triggered outrage prompting the army chief, General Javed Bajwa, to order an inquiry. However, details of the action taken against the offending officials remain firmly under wraps.

Since then reports have emerged of defections in opposition parties orchestrated by the security forces. In Balochistan, where the pro-military Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) heads the government, two senior PML-N leaders are said to have broken ranks with Sharif over his “narrative” against the army, which they claim is a call to “mutiny”.

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Well-worn tactics to use religious parties close to the military-security establishment have also resurfaced. The radical Barelvi group, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which shot to political stardom in 2017 after working with the security establishment to oust former prime minister Sharif, has made a fresh appearance.

In a series of rallies in early November, which served to distract attention from opposition demands, the TLP blocked main routes to the capital, Islamabad, and called for Pakistan to sever relations with France over alleged Islamophobia.

Notwithstanding these familiar patterns, the latest opposition protests do break some new ground. The most significant departure from previous movements has been to call out senior members of the military hierarchy for exceeding their constitutional remit and interfering in politics.

The tone was set by Sharif who, in a dramatic video address from London to a mass rally in Gujranwala which kicked off the movement on October 17, named General Bajwa and the current head of the ISI, General Faiz Hameed, as conspiring to oust him from office. The unprecedented intervention has left the military scrambling to salvage its reputation as a neutral arbiter above party politics.

But Sharif’s decision to take the bull by its horns has also opened up cracks in the opposition, which could spell a loss of momentum. The first indications appeared on November 6 when, in the course of an interview with the BBC, the co-chairman of the PPP, Bilawal Bhutto, confessed that he had been “shocked” by Sharif’s decision to single out individual members of the military establishment as culprits for bringing Imran Khan to power. “We don’t talk like this in rallies,” he declared. Sharif’s daughter, Maryam, de facto head of the PML-N, was quick to respond saying Bilawal had offered his personal opinion.

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These differences reflect each party’s differing stakes in the existing dispensation. While the PPP retains control of the provincial government in Sindh, the PML-N is still confined to political wilderness. This may explain Maryam Sharif’s recent offer of talks with the military in which she set as a condition for Khan’s dismissal but refrained from demanding the resignation of either Bajwa or Faiz Hameed.

But the military’s options also seem to be constrained at the moment. While it may be inclined to negotiate with opposition parties, Khan’s unwillingness to do so has proved awkward and, arguably, something of an irritant. Yet the military is clearly not ready to impose its will or to alienate Khan for fear he may also “go rogue” like its erstwhile protégé, Sharif.

Khan, however, is far from invulnerable. Nourished by the military and increasingly exposed as inept at governance, his political fortunes can be expected to last only as long as it takes to cobble together a more dependable “King’s Party”.

This article first appeared in the print edition on November 30, 2020 under the title ‘New script in Pakistan’. The writer is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House London

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