Opposition parties, Islamists strike Imran Khan's government when it appears weakest politically

Amid the rising inflation and widespread anger against the government in Pakistan, opposition parties, under the banner of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), have hit the streets against the government on Friday, with a range of demands, including early elections

Oct 22, 2021
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Islamists strike Imran Khan's government

Amid the rising inflation and widespread anger against the government in Pakistan, opposition parties, under the banner of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), have hit the streets against the government on Friday, with a range of demands, including early elections. The protest is led by the chairman of the PDM, Maulana Farlur Rahman, a hardliner cleric known for his fiery oratory skills. He heads a religious party, Jamiat-e-Islam (JUI), which dominates politics in the northwestern mountainous province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. 

The entry points to several prominent cities like capital Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and Lahore remain blocked by security forces that are on high alert. Internet services were also blocked, according to media reports. Intercity bus services, too, have been stopped on key roads. 

Sheikh Rashid, the country’s interior minister, has warned the opposition against creating trouble. 

For opposition parties, the timing of these protests could not be more perfect. Inflation has been growing, the prices of petrol and diesel were hiked drastically recently. And Khan’s government, known for having smooth ties - at least until recently - with the country’s powerful military establishment, is seemingly at odds with Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa over the appointment of the spy chief.


Adding to the existing woes, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a radical Islamist group--lately banned by the government--announced a similar protest, a Long March to Islamabad, sensing this was the apt opportunity to press the government on its demands.  Hafeez Saad Rizvi, the group’s leader, remains under the detention of the government after the group’s violent protests earlier this year brought life to a standstill in several major cities. 

The last time when they waged protests, several police officers were abducted, forcing the government to negotiate an agreement. The government promised to release the workers and the leader from the jail and assured the group of its delisting from the banned terror outfits. 

The government also assured the group to consider expelling the Frech envoy over the alleged blasphemous comments by French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron--a key demand of the TLP that holds considerable sway on the streets of Pakistan Punjab. 

Now, the government is not acting on its promises, the TLP alleges. Furthermore, the government has been cracking down on its workers, arresting and detaining thousands of its workers. It also made it clear that the expulsion of the French ambassador--a key demand of the TLP--won’t be possible. 
 
By Friday afternoon, according to media reports, authorities detained over a thousand workers of the banned groups in almost 36 districts in Punjab, a known stronghold of the group. 

The possibility that the group’s recent protests against the government might have been encouraged by the military can’t be ruled out entirely. After all, the military establishment has had a history of using similar groups at times to pressure civilian governments. The reason this time could be the appointment of the ISI chief. 

Lastly, there should be no surprise if Prime Minister Khan approves the appointment of the ISI chief as suggested by the military in a day or two--because going by past records, it would be the most natural course of action for any civilian government to do to ease its way out of direct confrontation with the all-powerful military. 

 (SAM)