Ahead of elections, Pakistan heads toward more political chaos

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Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and former President Asif Ali Zardari are bitter political enemies. Khan accuses the co-chairman of the liberal Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of being massively corrupt, whereas Zardari slams Khan for being a Taliban supporter.

But on Wednesday, the two political stalwarts participated in a joint rally in the eastern city of Lahore, with the aim of toppling the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N’s (PML-N) central and provincial governments.

The demonstration, which is the first in a series of several planned rallies in the months leading to general elections in the Islamic country, saw a number of other political groups demanding Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Punjab province’s Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif step down.

The Lahore protest was unprecedented because almost all major political parties in Pakistan have agreed to work together on a single-point agenda: there should be no political role for the Sharifs in Pakistan. Their alliance has no ideological basis except their opposition to the ousted premier, Nawaz Sharif.

Pakistan Opposition protestiert gegen regierung in Lahore (picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/R. Sajid Hussain)

Imran Khan spoke at the Lahore rally on January 17

United in opposition 

“The entire political leadership is here to honor humanity, to empower the weak, to give voice to the voiceless,” Tahirul Qadri, head of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), told the rally participants.

“We have gathered here to save the country from Sheikh Mujeeb of a new era,” the firebrand cleric said, comparing Nawaz Sharif to Sheikh Mujeeb – the leader of Bangladesh’s 1971 independence movement from Pakistan.

Although Nawaz Sharif was ousted by the Supreme Court on corruption charges in July last year, his party is still in power in Islamabad and Punjab province.

With Abbasi as prime minister and Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s younger brother, as chief minister of Punjab province, Nawaz Sharif hopes that his party will retain power until the next general election, which is scheduled to be held either in May or later this year.

But the opposition parties want the Sharifs out of the political scene as early as possible.

All the king’s men?

Khalid Javed, a Lahore-based political analyst, accuses the powerful military establishment of backing the political alliance against the Sharifs.

“The military wants a weak government after the next general election. The generals believe that a strong government and a popular leader can challenge their immense power. They fear that Sharif’s party is likely to win the next election, so they are using Qadri, Khan and Zardari to ensure that Sharif’s party does not secure a majority in the next parliament,” Javed told DW.

Javed says the former prime minister fell out with the military because he wanted to keep the generals within the country’s constitutional limits and normalize ties with India and Afghanistan, which the military establishment strictly opposes.

Ahsan Raza, a Lahore-based security analyst, shares a similar view. “Sharif, if he comes to power again, is likely to rein in Islamist groups and once again try to normalize ties with India and Afghanistan, because he believes that these jihadists and religious parties are controlled by the military to keep civilian governments under pressure.”

The Pakistani military denies allegations that it supports proxy jihadists in Afghanistan and India-administered Kashmir. Sharif’s political opponents say the former premier is deliberately trying to malign the military to gain US support and divert public attention from his corruption.

Pakistan Opposition protestiert gegen regierung in Lahore (picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/R. Sajid Hussain)

The joint rally in Lahore called for toppling Pakistan’s ruling ‘Pakistan Muslim League-N’ government

Anger against politicians’ corruption

Sharif’s reputation has been severely dented by corruption allegations against him. Politician Imran Khan is leading a nationwide campaign against corrupt politicians and his popularity among his countrymen has increased in the past few years. The reason that his message resonates well with a large section of the Pakistani middle class is their emphasis on governance issues – particularly corruption and political accountability.

Many urban Pakistanis believe corruption is the biggest impediment to progress in their country, and they hold their politicians responsible. These educated Pakistanis from big cities like Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi pin their hopes on the judiciary, which they think has finally gained enough independence to try corrupt legislators and politicians.

In an interview with DW, Imran Khan said the movement against Sharif would only strengthen democracy in Pakistan.

“For the first time in the history of Pakistan, a sitting prime minister has been ousted for money laundering, corruption and forgery. Some people have been making their way into the corridors of power merely to make money. Whenever the army has taken control of the country, people have celebrated it,” Khan said.

But some observers criticize Khan for only attacking civilian politicians and sparing the military’s corruption. They also say that Khan is being “used” by the generals to destabilize the political system in the name of an anti-corruption campaign. Many liberal analysts and civil society activists say the opposition’s alliance against Sharif will weaken democratic structures and give the military an upper hand in governance and policy making.

Read more:Local government elections turn violent in southern Pakistan

Read more: What Donald Trump can really do to ‘rein in’ Pakistan

More chaos ahead?

After the ouster of former PM Nawaz Sharif, opposition groups are now also demanding the resignation of his brother Shahbaz, who will be the PML-N’s candidate for prime minister in the 2018 election. Tahirul Qadri accuses Shahbaz Sharif of using brutal police force in 2014 against his supporters. Several people were killed and dozens were wounded in the clashes.

“Wednesday’s demonstration against the government was impressive. It turned the 2014 Lahore incident into national outrage. We shall soon announce the second protest rally to get rid of the corrupt rulers,” Riaz Abbasi, a spokesman for Qadri’s PAT party, told DW.

Experts say the next few months are crucial for Pakistan. The US is increasing pressure on Islamabad to decisively act against militant groups along the Afghanistan border and has cut the South Asian country’s military aid. To deal with domestic issues and foreign affairs, Pakistan needs a strong democratic set up, but it seems that only political chaos is on the horizon.