Opposition supporters of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) hold parties' flags as they gather during an anti-government rally in Quetta on October 25, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Banaras Khan

A grand coalition of Pakistan’s opposition parties is winning public support for its campaign to topple Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government and curb the powerful military’s strong influence over politics and the economy.

Mass Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) rallies in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan in October demonstrated significant popular support for the opposition’s pro-democracy rally cry, a potent call in a country plagued by a long history of coups, political engineering and electoral manipulation. 

Analysts say the 11-party opposition alliance is taking a harder line on what it calls a military-run “deep state” and its reputed influence over Khan’s government and policies. Whether the street agitation will lead to Khan’s ouster and military reform, however, is still in doubt.

The movement includes the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), headed by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), whose leader Nawaz Sharif is in exile in the United Kingdom after being convicted and jailed for corruption. His party is now led by his daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif.

In public addresses in Gujranwala and Quetta, Nawaz daringly accused army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed of being responsible for Pakistan’s economic and political stagnation.

Nawaz’s apparent aim is to cut off the “transgressing generals” from the lower tiers of the army establishment and thus drive a wedge between the military’s leadership and rank and file.  

Maryam Nawaz Sharif, daughter of former Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif, gestures while speaks during a public rally of the newly-formed Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), Karachi, October 18, 2020. Photo: AFP/Rizwan Tabassum

The PDM’s broad demands have been outlined in a 26-point declaration, which among other things calls for an end of the “establishment’s” interference in politics, new free and fair elections after election reforms with no role of armed forces and intelligence agencies, the release of political prisoners, implementation of a national action plan against terrorism, and across the board accountability under a new accountability law.

Afrasiyab Khattak, a right-wing politician, intellectual and Pashtun rights activist has compared the PDM’s declaration with a charter of democracy signed by the political parties in 2006.

“The charter of democracy was an agreement between a few political parties but the PDM 26-point announcement is the whole opposition case which is being presented for the masses to take up,” he told Asia Times.

He asserted that the call for civilian supremacy was part of the 26-point agenda and was not an individual demand that could be ignored.  

The opposition’s anti-establishment drive has sparked a new political discourse across the country. Public debates are asking whether a new social contract is required to rebuild flagging public trust in the state’s institutions.

For the first time, too, the scope of civil-military relations is being addressed and openly condemned in public. In particular, demands are being made for a redefinition of the constitutional role of the army, a topic that was once taboo.

Opposition supporters of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) hold parties flags during an anti-government rally in Quetta, October 25, 2020. Photo: AFP/Banaras Khan

“It augurs well for the democratization of political institutions that Punjab has stood to cut the mighty military to size. Earlier the smaller provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were single-handedly waging a struggle against the excesses of the deep state,” Khattak said.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a political scientist and author of the book Military Inc tweeted on October 27, “Each party has an interlocutor with the military but for a meaningful change, PDM parties will have to start a dialogue with the army that can ensure a meaningful negotiation of power for the long run.

“A social contract will have to be much wider. It will have to extend to smaller provinces but also religious and ethnic minorities. Pakistan has little chance to become secular but a healing hand will have to be extended to minorities or else it will remain exploitable.”

However, Khattak thinks that the army’s functions and duties have already been clearly and legally set out.

“The role of the army is clearly defined in the country’s constitution. There is hardly any need to redefine the army’s core responsibilities by enacting a new social contract,” he said. “No one is against the army as an institution, but when it goes beyond its constitutional scope and indulges in politics and businesses then the trouble starts.”

Pakistan’s Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Photo: Pakistan Inter Services Public Relations/Handout

He said democratic transitions in 1972, 1985 and 2008 also needed to be evaluated to understand the merits and demerits of civilian rule.

The anti-establishment campaign took a dramatic turn last week when the country’s premier spy agency, ISI, and the military’s Karachi Rangers allegedly abducted the Sindh Inspector-General of Police Mushtaq Mehr to coerce him into ordering the arrest of a key PML-N leader.

(PML-N is an offshoot of the PML, one of Pakistan’s three largest political parties.)

Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah says he was kept in the dark about the police action in the early hours on Monday when police broke into the hotel room of Maryam Nawaz and arrested her spouse, Captain Muhammad Safdar Awan. The couple was in Karachi for a PDM public meeting the day before.

Just as Zardari was slamming Safdar’s arrest and promising a ministerial inquiry into the incident, more than 60 senior Sindh police officials including Mehr tendered leave applications in protest against the perceived as politicized arrest.

The mass leave applications reportedly sent shockwaves across the top brass. Underscoring the significance of the backlash at a delicate juncture, army chief Bajwa stepped in and ordered an inquiry into the incident. 

On Tuesday, rights activist I A Rehman and others petitioned the Supreme Court seeking a broad-based commission to investigate whether Mehr was kidnapped, detained and forced to issue an arrest order for Awan. In particular, the petitioners sought identification of anyone or any institution involved in the act for legal action to be filed against them.  

Last week, when the Mehr saga came to the fore, PML-N leader and former premier Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said the ISI and Rangers were answerable to the prime minister, who in this case he suggested may have violated the constitution by overriding the authority of Sindh province authorities. 

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during the 74th Session of the General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York on September 27, 2019. Photo: AFP/Don Emmert

“The premier will have to answer why he broke his oath besides directing others to do so,” Abbasi said according to a Dawn report.

A resolution was also tabled last week in the Pakistan Senate, which sought to create a committee to investigate the PML-N leader’s arrest and alleged abduction of Mehr.

Analysts say a Senate investigation is needed to draw a proper and legal conclusion of an incident that has glaringly underscored the root of the PDM’s anti-military and anti-establishment complaints.