Supporters of the Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz shout slogans during a demonstration after the Lahore High Court rejected opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif's bail plea in a money-laundering case, in Karachi on September 28, 2020. Shahbaz is the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif. Photo: AFP / Asif Hassan

PESHAWAR – A political tug of war between Pakistan’s opposition parties and the powerful army establishment is set to intensify as opposition forces form a new united front to take their military grievances to the streets.

Last week, Pakistan’s opposition parties held an All Parties Conference towards the nominal goal of restoring what they called a “genuine and undiluted” democracy.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s elected government is widely accused of being under the thumb of the powerful military, accusations the leader has denied. The military plays an outsized political role in Pakistan’s polity, with soldiers appointed to various top government positions  

Now, opposition parties are calling for measures to redefine civil-military relations in ways that ensure civilian leadership over the armed forces as well as firmer legal penalties for undermining democratic institutions and defying the people’s mandate.

The 11-party opposition alliance, consisting of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Awami National Party (ANP), the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam (JUI) and others announced a new unified Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).

It has promised to kickstart a mass protest campaign beginning in October, one that could have major implications for national stability in the weeks ahead. The PDM says it aims to end “political engineering” by a “state above the state” and ensure that all state organs are strictly run as mandated under law.

The opposition movement, which says it will run through October to January, will stage protest gatherings, political rallies, no-confidence moves, en masse resignations from assemblies and, finally, a long march and sit-in in the country’s capital Islamabad until their demands are met.

The PDM has also called on Khan and his ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party to step down and announce fresh nationwide elections.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan delivers a speech on February 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi

A 26-point resolution passed by the multi-party conference also called for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission to probe abuses against the people since independence in 1947, an investigation that would inevitably reveal a long history of military abuses.

A statement read out by JUI Chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman at the end of the multiparty conference said, “The (military) establishment should desist from interfering in the politics and end supporting a ‘selected government’ which miserably failed to deliver on good governance, economy and foreign policy.”

Marking yet another political comeback, deposed prime minister and PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif addressed the multiparty conference via video link from London. Sharif, 70, said that their struggle was “against those who rigged the 2018 elections and installed a selected government.”

“Those who manipulated elections and destroyed the country by installing incompetent and inexperienced government under Imran Khan should be looked square in the eyes,” he said.

Adding fuel to the fire, Sharif warned the armed forces “to abstain from politics and adhere to the role defined in the constitution” and that if “corrective measures are not taken and the situation is allowed to continue, the country will suffer an irreversible loss,” he added, without elaborating.

Sharif, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for corruption and money-laundering in 2018, is now in London for medical treatment. Authorities earlier warned he would be considered a fugitive from justice if he did not return to Pakistan by September 10.

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif leaves the Supreme Court after the land case hearing in Islamabad on December 4, 2018. Photo: AFP/Farooq Naeem
Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif leaves the Supreme Court after a land case hearing in Islamabad on December 4, 2018. Photo: AFP/Farooq Naeem

Other opposition heavyweights, including PPP leaders Asif Ali Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif and JUI chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, also addressed the conference.  

The top brass is clearly spooked. Days after the opposition parties drew their battle lines, the army reacted by releasing week-old news to the media that said Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s had met with PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif, PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, JUI leader Maulana Asad Mehmood and other members from the opposition and treasury benches.

The leaders had earlier been invited by the military leadership to discuss building a consensus on making Gilgit-Baltistan the fifth province of Pakistan, unrelated to their subsequently aired political demands. But according to reports, Bajwa was quoted as saying the army should not be dragged into and is not involved in political rivalries.

An ANP leader who requested anonymity, told Asia Times that the military establishment felt “a rush of panic” when the opposition alliance called for an independent inquiry into the foreign assets of retired Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa, who also chairs the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Authority.

The PDM, he said, demanded that he should be relieved from the chairmanship of the CPEC until the inquiry was completed.

“The army, which denies having any political ambitions, remained in the saddle for well over 35 years of Pakistan’s checkered history. Even in the quasi-democratic setups, they keep on pulling the strings behind the scene,” he added.

Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa stands before the start of the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2019. Photo: Farooq Naeem

The military is already moving to undermine the PDM’s credibility, including through claims that opposition politicians are using their pressure campaign to pursue their personal interests from behind the scenes.

Maryam Nawaz Sharif, PML-N vice president and a daughter of Nawaz Sharif, has categorically denied such reports and said that no nominee of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had held a meeting with Army Chief General Bajwa.

Within hours of Maryam’s denial, however, the head of Inter-Services Public Relation (ISPR) Major General Babar Iftikhar in a TV talk show disclosed that PML-N leader and former Sindh governor Mohammad Zubair had twice met the army chief – once in the last week of August and then on September 7 –  to discuss Sharif’s and his daughter’s political and legal afflictions.

Feeling the heat, Sharif tweeted that from now on, no one from his party will hold a personal, private or joint meeting with the military leadership.

If such meetings are necessitated due to constitutional or security exigencies, prior approval from the party’s leadership would be required and such events would be made public, the ex-leader wrote.