FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 47

Lengthening shadows of uncertainty

Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa has warned that the armed forces, with the help of people, will never allow any country, group or force to politically or economically destabilise Pakistan. He may have reiterated the army’s resolve to defend the motherland from internal and external threats, but his remarks are being viewed differently by the government, its allies and the opposition.

Analysts close to the government and its allies believe the Army Chief indirectly warned former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who plans to hold a long march. Previously, the government had ruthlessly crushed the PTI’s protest rally on May 25 with the help of state institutions and it is believed that the same treatment will be meted out to Imran Khan and his workers if he brings a rally to Islamabad. The government has already warned that “full force” will be used to stop protesters from entering the capital. The Islamabad police have arranged for more than 1,100 containers to seal the capital for a week after the announcement of the sit-in. If the roads were blocked, the educational institutions would also be closed for a week.

For the first time in Pakistan’s history, drones will be used to fire teargas shells at protesters. The authorities have also arranged for 50,000 rubber bullets and 60,000 teargas shells. Helicopters can also be used to stop riots. The police have already made lists for the arrest of PTI financiers. Some of them have already been arrested. Imran Khan could also be house arrested.

On the other hand, Imran Khan has acted carefully after the government used brute force to stop his May 25 march. He has delayed his protest for many months even after threatening to return to Islamabad with “better preparedness” after six days. He knows he has no support in the system and he will have to adopt a new strategy to press the government for the acceptance of his demand for an early election. A May 25-like march will lead him down a blind alley.

However, the government may not be able to use force against PTI workers as the party will not enter the capital. According to media reports, PTI supporters will stage sit-ins on roads and highways leading to Islamabad. It aims to block all entry and exit points of the federal capital.

Imran Khan’s earlier march on roads may have failed but he gained immensely from it. Police violence against PTI workers, especially women, and house raids in Punjab added to sympathies for his party and tarnished the image of the government. Since then, his popularity has increased and his party won by-polls in Punjab with a thumping majority.

According to a new survey by IRIS Communications conducted in September, over 51pc people believe Imran Khan is the most capable leader to steer Pakistan out of the current mess. On the other hand, the rating for other political leaders deteriorated. When the survey was conducted in March, 25pc believed in PML-N leader and former premier Nawaz Sharif’s leadership, however, the number reduced to 21pc in September. Similarly, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s 11pc approval in April plunged to just 4pc in September. Another survey by the company says 37pc people believe Imran Khan will win all seats in by-elections and 60pc say the PTI would bag a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly in the next elections. Following Imran Khan’s narrative, 66pc say elections should be held at the earliest. In another IRIS survey, 72pc survey takers were “completely dissatisfied” with the performance of the PDM government.

The government’s main problem is that it has failed to dent Imran Khan’s popularity. It accused him of corruption and receiving illegal funding from abroad. In the latest move, audios were leaked to accuse him of forging the cipher conspiracy and horse-trading when he was facing a no-confidence motion. However, they have failed to malign his image among the public. There are also rumours that more audios and videos will be released to tarnish his image. However, the ground reality shows people will not accept anything negative against him, even if it is true.

However, Imran Khan has failed to force the government to announce early elections despite holding over 50 public gatherings since his ouster. The government wants to delay polls as long as possible because it feels it has taken harsh measures to put the economy on the path to sustained growth, which have created the worst price hike in the country. The government’s popularity is at the lowest ebb now. However, it believes it will be able to start providing relief to the common people after a few months. On the other hand, Imran Khan considers it the right time to strike, as the public wave in his favour can subside after a few months, especially if the government really starts to perform.

The situation in the country will worsen after the announcement of the march. If the PTI besieges the federal capital, it will not immediately paralyze the federal government. The PTI will have to continue its sit-in for weeks and months to force the government to come to the negotiating table. It could also tire PTI leaders and workers.

It appears both sides are prepared for a long battle. Fears are also being raised about the future of democracy in the country. Both sides are hopeful of their victory. However, the question is: whether the country can afford political instability for more months and weeks?