Next week, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government faces its first major political challenge as the country’s opposition parties march to the capital in an effort to dislodge the government. The incoming sit-in of the joint opposition parties can create a serious political crisis if the situation is not handled diligently. The opposition’s refusal to negotiate with the government unless the latter is ready to call fresh elections underscores that the country is heading toward a dangerous showdown.
The fact that all opposition political parties have joined forces against the government shows that there remains no hesitancy among them. Previously, opposition parties remained divided over the question of demanding Khan’s resignation or staging a sit-in against the government for its alleged heavy-handed approach towards dissent and political rivals. The key concern in this regard remained with the opposition’s lack of readiness to challenge the country’s national security institutions, which are believed to be closely allied with Khan’s government.
So, what has changed over the last few months that the opposition is taking to the streets? Arguably, the announced protest is an effort on the part of the opposition to push back against the government’s heavy-handed approach and acquire some political space that has been squeezed out over the last few months. On the opposition’s part, the decision to move against the ruling party comes as the list of political leaders accused of corruption and money laundering grows. Currently, all key leaders of the country’s mainstream political parties have either been imprisoned or are facing corruption charges.
An example of the opposition’s shrinking space is evident from the coverage given to politicians and issues on the country’s media. Recently, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued notices to 21 TV channels concerning the telecasting of a speech by the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N)’s leader Maryam Nawaz, in which she criticized the government. Thus, the opposition’s decision to call for the government’s removal is borne out of political necessity. For the opposition, it is extremely important to make an impact next week to ensure that its political strategy of building pressure through protest gains credible leverage that it can eventually use to come to some sort of settlement with the government.
However, it’s unclear how far the opposition is willing to go when it comes to upsetting Khan’s government. While it’s unlikely that the incoming protest will remove the government, a call for the country’s lockdown at a time when the financial crisis in Pakistan looms large and situation along the Line of Control (LoC) remains precarious is surely going to infuriate the civilian and military leadership. Arguably, the military in Pakistan doesn’t want a domestic political crisis to divert attention away from the Kashmir issue. Moreover, the national security establishment in Pakistan doesn’t want the international community to see a sense of instability in the country, particularly at a time when Pakistan is increasingly taking the role of a mediator in the Afghan peace process and facilitating Saudi Arabia-Iran talks.
Preferably, the military would want Khan’s government to negotiate a settlement with the opposition and resolve the dispute quickly. However, that doesn’t mean that Khan’s government will be left defenseless when the opposition marches to the capital next week. “The prime minister [Imran Khan] has energized Pakistan’s foreign policy and acquired regional stature of a kind not seen for four decades,” argues Marvin Weinbaum, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies at the Middle East Institute (MEI). This is something very vital for the country’s national security institutions and its unlikely that they are going to allow the opposition to weaken the government in any way.
On the other hand, considering that the country’s national security institutions support Khan’s government, the incoming protest will largely challenge the former’s influence over domestic politics. Furthermore, the announced protest comes at a time when calls to contain the establishment’s alleged role in the country’s politics have grown in all provinces. Even political leadership from the province of Punjab, particularly the PML-N, who has been known as the “establishment’s party” also announced to join the march “in full force.” In such a situation, the security establishment will not only be occupied with protecting the government, but also their prominence and institutional standing. Having said that, it’s unclear if the national security establishment is interested in culminating all ties with the opposition, which can practically leave Khan as the sole political contender that the former has to rely on. As of now, we cannot tell if the opposition is actually willing to demonstrate its street power against the security establishment as that would constitute crossing a red line.
However, the opposition’s decision to stage a sit-in against the ruling party and the demand for new elections are bold attempts, which only leaves space for a head-on collision between major political and national security actors in the country. Moreover, the opposition’s announcement that “demonstration’s direction can be turned to Rawalpindi instead of Islamabad if some unconstitutional action is taken against them” is worrying.