In a charged press conference in Peshawar on Saturday, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) chief Fazlur Rehman declared ‘war’ against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government, announcing a protest rally in Islamabad on October 27.
Rehman had been vowing a protest in the capital for months, asking the government to step down if it didn’t want a rally to converge in the capital Islamabad.
The JUI-F chief, who also leads the Islamist coalition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), has alleged over the past year that PTI’s election triumph in July 2018 was a result of mass scale rigging, maintaining that Prime Minister Imran Khan does not have the legitimacy to rule.
Rehman’s movement has been backed by the two largest opposition parties – Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which have held multi-parties conference under the leadership of the JUI-F.
While the PML-N and PPP both echo the claims that Khan’s government is illegitimate and that the premier should resign, neither party has expressed willingness to join the JUI-F’s march on the capital, as yet.
With the PML-N being in government when the PTI launched its four-month-long protest in Islamabad in 2014, and the PPP being critical of Khan’s ‘container politics’ as well, both parties are having to reconcile their stance against the demonstration at the time and their need for the PTI government to be compromised.
But once Rehman announced the protest date, think-tanks in both leading opposition parties were sparked into action with meetings being called to underline the exact extent of their respective involvement in what the JUI-F chief is dubbing an ‘Azadi’ [freedom] March.
“The PPP believes that the government has undermined democracy and parliamentary norms. It has been a complete failure, at home and internationally, especially on the economic and governance fronts. [The PPP] will play its due role in the best interests of the nation,” said PPP leader Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, who is the spokesperson of party chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.
Meanwhile, for the PML-N, Rehman’s protest call has resulted in the resurfacing of the divides between Nawaz Sharif and Shehbaz Sharif, with party insiders maintaining that like many other subjects, the two brothers differ over the degree of the party’s involvement in the upcoming rally.
“A majority of the party members are on board when it comes to joining the march. But of course the party leadership will take the final decision,” says senior PML-N leader Pervaiz Rashid. The former information minister Rashid belongs to the Nawaz camp within the party, with Shehbaz loyalists maintaining that the PML-N president doesn’t agree with his elder brother and three-time premier.
While the PML-N and the PPP would announce their plans in the coming days, the greatest question surrounding the ‘Azadi March’ remains over Fazlur Rehman’s goals.
Rehman and his party members maintain that after benefitting from rigged elections, the PTI government has singlehandedly crippled the national economy, and hence the JUI-F would go all out to take down the government.
“At least 100,000 people would participate in the Azadi March. It would be a record gathering. It will be a peaceful protest but if the government initiates a crackdown against us, the workers are ready to resist it. The workers are ready to face anything,” said JUI-F leader Habibur Rehman.
While the JUI-F leadership maintains that election rigging, financial crisis and bad governance is the motivation behind the rally, analysts believe that Rehman only has his own political at heart while organising the ‘Azadi March’.
“He is trying to increase his relevance in Pakistani politics. He used to be very relevant in the two previous civilian governments [of the PML-N and the PPP] and even during the rule of [military ruler] Pervez Musharraf,” says political scientist Hasan Askari Rizvi, the former caretaker chief minister of Punjab.
“But after being side-lined recently, he thinks can reassert his presence this way, because he knows that there is a dissatisfaction [among the masses] against the government’s policies and the two largest opposition parties have their grievances as well– and he’s looking to cash in on that.”
Political analyst Umair Jamal argues that Rehman’s alienation with the establishment has increased over the years.
“JUI-F falling out with the military has grown over the last few years with PM Khan’s government making it worse for the party. Particularly, JUI-F local politics has been challenged by the PTI which the former believes cannot survive or could have been in power in the first place without the military support. JUI-F has no other option but to launch a protest to gain leverage or negotiate with the military,” he says.
Observers also note Rehman regularly warning the government against taking action against the madrassas, with Imran Khan vowing to mainstream over 30,000 seminaries and bring them under state control. Experts argue that Rehman and the JUI-F extract much of their political and street clout from these madrassas.
“He wants to continue getting political dividends from the religious following, but he doesn’t have the support of the other religious parties. The government is already negotiating with other parties that are managing the madrassas,” says Hasan Askari Rizvi.
KK Shahid is a Lahore-based reporter and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-Asia network of grassroots reporters