Imran Khan supporters to quit Pakistan parliament in bid to topple government
Politicians representing Pakistan’s third-largest party will quit their seats in parliament as part of a high-stakes effort by former cricket star Imran Khan to bring down the government of a country long blighted by political instability.
Shah Mehmood Qureshi, vice-chairman of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, announced the plan on Monday following days of demonstrations in Islamabad against alleged fraud in last year’s election.
It was a dramatic escalation of the party’s dispute with prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whose faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) won a crushing victory in last May’s general elections.
On Monday night Khan further raised the political stakes by leading his supporters on Islamabad’s sensitive “red zone”, a move that would likely spark violent clashes with security forces.
Khan claims a massive vote-rigging campaign deprived his party of victory, even though the PTI had never before won a significant number of seats and international observers said the election had been the cleanest in the country’s history.
Although Khan’s accusations have been dismissed by most election experts, it is feared a sustained campaign could undermine Pakistan’s fragile democracy. The country has a history of military coups and army-backed dismissals of elected governments.
Last May’s election was the first transition of power between two democratically elected governments in Pakistan.
Several analysts described Khan’s dramatic decision to order his 34 members of Pakistan’s National Assembly to resign as a desperate attempt to regain ground lost after staging an underwhelming “Freedom March” from Lahore to Islamabad last week.
“Step by step he is trying to delegitimise the government,” said Najam Sethi, editor of The Friday Times. “He is trying to demonstrate his commitment to the cause and to remain a player after his dismal showing in the last few days.”
Khan had promised to swamp the capital with a million of his supporters, but the crowd has rarely crept above some 20,000 people, and has frequently been far fewer.
The turnout has also been upstaged by a parallel protest by Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Canada-based televangelist who enjoys wide support through his network of schools and mosques in Pakistan. He is also calling for the resignation of the Sharif government but, unlike Khan, wants the country to be ruled by a “national government” of technocrats, rather than freshly-elected politicians.
Khan faced media ridicule on Monday following a speech the previous evening when he called for his supporters to stop paying tax and utility bills as a form of “civil disobedience”.
The failure to raise significant revenue in tax is one of Pakistan’s main governance challenges. Fixing the problem has been a long-standing demand of the foreign donors who sustain Pakistan’s basket case economy, including the International Monetary Fund. On Monday IMF officials had to cancel an important trip to Pakistan because of Khan’s street demonstrations.
The Nation newspaper described Khan’s call for civil disobedience as “desperate, bordering on manic”.
“Incitement to sedition doesn’t really work in a country where the state is already struggling to display its authority,” it said in a withering editorial. Khan’s party also came under fire for announcing its elected representatives would also resign from all of the country’s provincial legislatures, but not the one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), where the PTI controls the government.
“If they are challenging the legitimacy of last year’s votes then they should challenge it everywhere, including in KP,” said Sethi. “But they can’t because there would be a revolt in the party.”
If the PTI boycotts byelections for the vacated seats then the way will be open for the country’s main opposition group, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to regain some of the strength it lost in last year’s landslide defeat.
But Sherry Rehman, a senior PPP leader, said it was more important to protect Pakistan’s fragile democracy than to gain any party political advantage.
“Any short term political gain will be very short term,” she said. “The losers will be those who fought for the system to be constitutionally viable over the last six years.”