LAHORE, PAKISTAN - The president of an alliance of opposition parties in Pakistan warned of a confrontation between the public and the military if the military decided to stop them from reaching the capital, Islamabad, to bring down the current government.
“Get out of the way of the people,” he said, adding that he foresaw anarchy if the status quo continued.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman was in Lahore on Sunday, addressing a rally of the Pakistan Democratic Movement, an alliance of 11 opposition parties seeking to bring down the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. The PDM announced it would march on the capital if Khan did not resign by end of January.
Rehman, the leader of an Islamist political party called Jamiat e Ulema e Islam, has been a critic of the current government since it was elected in 2018. His efforts to build an opposition alliance faced roadblocks until the formation of the PDM this past September.
Tens of thousands gathered for the rally from across the country in Pakistan’s second-largest city, which is considered a trendsetter in Pakistani politics.
The idea of creating Pakistan out of British India was first presented in Lahore in 1940, when Muslim Indians called for separate states for the majority Muslim populations in the west and east. In 1967, one of the country’s largest political parties, the Pakistan People’s Party, was formed in the same city. The current ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf, emerged as a mainstream national party after a successful rally in Lahore in 2011.
The opposition accuses leadership at the top of Pakistan’s powerful military and one of the intelligence agencies, Inter Services Intelligence, of having rigged the last elections to install Khan. They say the military and intelligence leadership, therefore, share responsibility for the country’s economic woes including rising inflation, lack of economic opportunities, and the poor growth rate of the economy.
“Is Imran Khan the only one responsible? Or those who stole your vote and brought him to power?” said Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who was ousted. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, the largest opposition party, is also part of the alliance.
The military denies its involvement in politics. Khan alleges the opposition is a group of looters and plunderers who stole the country’s wealth when they were in power and are now complaining because they are being held accountable.
The opposition claimed the rally was successful in building up momentum for the upcoming march. Khan claimed otherwise.
“Pathetic. PDM spent so much money, time, effort & displayed utter callousness by endangering ppl's lives during COVID19 spike - showing the scant regard they have for citizens' safety & well-being,” he tweeted after Sunday’s rally.
Pathetic. PDM spent so much money, time, effort & displayed utter callousness by endangering ppl's lives during COVID19 spike - showing the scant regard they have for citizens' safety & well-being. All this just to blackmail me into giving them an NRO to save their looted wealth.— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) December 13, 2020
Meanwhile local officials from Khan’s party said the opposition failed to gather a large crowd. They also accused the PDM leadership of putting people’s lives at risk during a pandemic.
“If corona cases rise in Lahore after today, the opposition leadership will be fully responsible,” said Raja Basharat, the law minister of Punjab province.
Another member of the alliance, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the scion of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who took over the reins of her Pakistan People’s Party after her death, warned Khan that the time to have a dialogue with the opposition was over.
“I promise you this puppet, selected government is going home soon,” he told the people in the rally.
Last week, Khan said that after a similar opposition rally in Multan, the hospital beds for COVID-19 patients were now 64% full. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“I appeal to everyone, I appeal to these political parties, your rallies will not damage the government, but you are putting people’s lives at risk,” he said, asking them to postpone their rallies for a couple of months.
The opposition said the government was only using the coronavirus as an excuse to break its momentum. Meanwhile, opposition leaders said all the other activity in the country, such as mass transit, shopping plazas, weddings, and even the government’s own gatherings of hundreds, continued.