Tahir-ul Qadri (left) of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan join hands at an anti-government rally in Lahore on January 17, 2018. Photo: AFP / Arif Ali

Pakistan’s main opposition parties may have failed to muster much of a turnout for a protest rally in Punjab’s capital, Lahore, on Wednesday, but they remain undeterred in their attempts to turn the screws on the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) at provincial level ahead of elections to Pakistan’s Senate, the country’s upper house, in March.

Senators are elected by members of both national and provincial assemblies, with seats for each party reflecting the power balance of those assemblies. The opposition parties are convinced that if they can shrink the share of the cake afforded the PML(N) via provincial representation, the government can be defeated at national level. The ruling party has already been ousted from power in Balochistan. National Assembly elections are scheduled to follow in July.

Those involved in the combined anti-government movement – which is seeking to force dissolution of assemblies and snap elections – insist that Wednesday’s rally was only a starting point and that agitation will gather momentum around the country in the coming days and weeks.

“The Wednesday show was just a beginning and a warm-up exercise,” Faisal Karim Kundi, a former National Assembly deputy speaker and the Pakistan People’s Party’s Information Secretary, told Asia Times. “The standing committee of the joint opposition will have another sitting in the next couple of days and further programs will be unfolded.” He said options up for discussion include resignations from assemblies.

At the rally, Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, who is president of the Awami Muslim League (AML), announced his resignation from the National Assembly and declared a curse on parliament. Imran Khan, who leads Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), gave Rashid his backing and is said to be considering following suit. He said the assembly – which he also cursed – had lost its utility and was failing to protect people’s rights.

The idea of the PPP and PTI sharing the same stage might have been laughed at even just a few weeks ago. Khan’s party has been unsparing in its criticism of PPP chairman Asif Ali Zardari’s alleged corruption and ill-explained assets. A PML(N) party source told Asia Times that an “invisible hand” had made possible the impossibility of Khan and Zardari both addressing the Lahore rally, which was organized by the centrist Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) party.

One week before, Balochistan’s Chief Minister, Nawab Sanaullah
Zehri, unexpectedly resigned after the opposition – backed by disgruntled PML(N) lawmakers – tabled a no-trust motion against him in the province’s assembly. That move culminated in ending the PML(N) government in Balochistan as members elected a new chief minister, Abdul Quddus Bizenjo, from the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid e Azam Group), or PML(Q), a PML(N) splinter party.

“It is not an anti-government drive; instead we want justice for the Model Town victims who were mercilessly gunned down by police”

The political maneuvering in Balochistan could negatively impact PML(N) in the Senate. Of the three other provinces, only Punjab is now controlled by the PML(N): Sindh is presently ruled by the PPP, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by PTI. This puts the PML(N) at a distinct disadvantage up against a “combined opposition” movement.

Omer Sarfaraz Cheema, a senior PTI leader, and the party’s former Central Information Secretary told Asia Times: “It is not an anti-government drive; instead we want justice for the Model Town victims who were mercilessly gunned down by police. The Punjab government could not identify the killers over the last three years.”

Fourteen PAT activists were gunned in clashes with police in Model Town, Lahore, in 2014. After sitting on a tribunal report on the massacre, by Justice Baqar Ali Najfi, for three years, the Punjab government finally made it public in December after being directed to do so by Lahore High Court (LHC).

PAT’s leadership claims the report’s findings expose the culpability of Punjab’s Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, of its Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, and of senior police officers. The party, now with support from the “combined opposition,” has seized on the incident to demand the resignations of Shahbaz Sharif – the brother of Nawaz Sharif, whose ouster as prime minister of Pakistan last summer sparked a crisis for PML(N) that is still unravelling – and Sanaullah.

Cheema added: “We also want to register our indignation over the gruesome rape and killing of the young children in Kasur and elsewhere in the country.” The body of six-year-old girl, Zainab Ansari, who had suffered horrendous sexual abuse, was recovered last week from a garbage dump in Kasur, a city near the border with India.

Cheema said PML(N) leaders could not be trusted to properly pursue such cases in the courts as they themselves had “maligned the judiciary and military establishment through a sustained propaganda campaign, [because] they wanted to play the victim.”