Rahimullah Yusufzai reports on the continuing dramas playing out in Pakistan’s ever-shifting political arena
It has been an eventful few weeks in Pakistan. Former leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, Syed Khurshid Shah, was arrested on corruption charges for having assets beyond his known sources of income, two leaders of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, were finally released from prison after being bailed out by the Peshawar High Court, and Gulalai Ismail, a young rights activist belonging to the PTM, managed to escape from the country to reach the United States after complaining that she was being hounded by the intelligence agencies.
There is certainly never a dull moment on Pakistan’s busy political stage. A deep and pervading polarisation ensures that politicians are forever in a confrontational mood and ready to stage protests in a bid to outdo rivals and even remove the ruling party from power.
Indeed, right now efforts are being made to build an alliance of opposition parties to force Prime Minister Imran Khan to resign, even though his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was elected for a five-year term in the 2018 election. Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) – the biggest Islamic party in the country – is leading the campaign to unite the opposition in mounting a powerful challenge against the PTI and its allies. Rahman has threatened to march on Islamabad, the federal capital and seat of the government, in October with thousands of his followers to stage a dharna, a protest sit-in, until the premier resigns. Time and again, he has reiterated this resolve to paralyse and eventually dislodge the PTI government.
However, he has not yet secured the required support from other opposition parties, particularly the major ones like former President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). While the latter is more likely to offer support to Fazlur Rahman, provided he follows a consensus political roadmap for the future and delays the Islamabad dharna, the former is reluctant to back a movement led by a cleric with a controversial past. The PPP is now increasingly being led and run by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of Asif Ali Zardari and late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, as the elder Zardari is in prison on charges of keeping fake bank accounts for money-laundering. The younger, UK-educated Bilawal wants to return the PPP to its secular and progressive past, when it became a popular party of the left and caught the imagination of the poor.
Until now, the PTI has largely ignored the looming threat posed by Rahman, who seems to harboura pathological hatred for Imran Khan and has publicly condemned him as an agent of the Jews and the West. It is fairly certain he will not be able to assemble a crowd large enough or for long enough to pose any real threat to the government; while madrassa students, who form the core of his supporters, will no doubt answer his call to the federal capital in large numbers, the question is whether they will stay put long enough to paralyse the workings of the government.
It is unclear whether the government has a security plan to stop the protestors from entering Islamabad or at least keep them away from Constitution Avenue, home to the Presidency, Prime Minister’s office, Parliament, Supreme Court buildings and the Federal Secretariat. This is the place where the famous D-Chowk is located, used by Imran Khan when he was an opposition leader in 2014 to stage a dharna for 126 consecutive days in a bid to topple the Nawaz Sharif government. Sharif survived the protests and Khan will be hoping he too can survive this latest dharna. But the prospect of staging dharnas to oust an elected government must now be haunting the new prime minister.
The cause of the ruling PTI is being affected by its ongoing confrontation with the rival PPP and PML-N, due to its sustained anti-graft campaign. The Zardari and Sharif families are bearing the brunt of this campaign as many members of the two influential households are now behind bars on charges of corruption and misuse of power. Yet they are coming closer to challenging the PTI government, and Fazlur Rahman’s planned dharna would give them an opportunity to judge the resilience of Imran Khan’s administration and also find out if Pakistan’s powerful military is still behind him.
The PPP, already outraged by the arrests of Asif Ali Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur, was further incensed when one of its senior leaders, Syed Khurshid Shah, was arrested after an investigation into his considerable assets. Government agencies have provided details to the court as to how Khurshid Shah rose from his humble origins to amass wealth after being elected as a member of parliament and becoming a minister. He is accused of buying property through his frontmen to conceal his wealth. The PPP leadership has termed the case against Khurshid Shah ‘political victimisation’ because he was a vocal critic of the government.
In the midst of this rising political confrontation, two lawmakers affiliated to the PTM, a rights movement highlighting the suffering of the ethnic Pashtuns, were released from the Central Prison Haripur in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province after being arrested in May following a clash between PTM supporters and Pakistan Army soldiers at the Khar Kamar security checkpoint in North Waziristan. The incident caused the deaths of 13 civilians and injuries to many others, including soldiers. Mohsin Dawar, a member of the National Assembly from North Waziristan, and Ali Wazir, a lawmaker from South Waziristan, were charged over the Khar Kamar incident, registered by the Counter Terrorism Department, with provoking and leading the mob that attacked the checkpoint. They had earlier been bailed out in another case in which an army convoy was hit by a roadside bombon June 7, killing four soldiers, including three officers.
Although the bail conditions were tough, as Dawar and Wazir were bound to furnish two surety bonds of Rs1 million each, directed to appear before a relevant police officer once a month and barred from travelling abroad, the PTM workers still celebrated their release. Bail was granted for a period of one month only and is subject to ‘good behaviour’. It was a small victory in what seems to be a long legal battle for Dawar and Wazir, who have been vocal in criticising the military for human rights violations and for causing the suffering of the Pashtun population of the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), now merged with the adjoining Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Their arrest and the failure of the National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser, who belongs to the PTI, to issue their production orders to attend its sessions was criticised by the leaders of opposition parties, particularly the PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
Around the same time, PTM activist Gulalai Ismail announced, after landing in the United States, that she had escaped from Pakistan due to her harassment by secret agencies. She joined her sister, who lives in the US, and pledged to continue her work, speaking out for Pashtun rights and women’s emancipation from the safety of America. Ismail, who formed the organisation Aware Girls to work for women rights, claimed she did not fly out of Pakistan as she fled. This obviously means she used the familiar Afghanistan land route to make her escape, reaching Kabul and flying out from there. This route has been taken by many wanted politicians and others in the past. Gulalai Ismail’s escape caused embarrassment to Pakistan’s law-enforcement and security agencies, as they were apparently confident that she would not be able to take a flight out of Pakistan.
Ismail now joins the ranks of self-exiled Pakistani politicians and activists who are using foreign soil to practise politics, work towards their goals and, in some cases, malign Pakistan.