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Analysis: Timing of PTI protest

Updated May 03, 2014

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File photo
File photo

“What will MQM achieve with the shutter-down strike? Paralysing business and trade activities, keeping children off school, simply bizarre!”

Thus tweeted Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) member of the Sindh Assembly from Karachi Naz Baloch on Friday as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) observed a ‘mourning day’ to protest the discovery of bullet-riddled bodies of four of its ‘missing’ activists in the city.

The same question is being asked by many about her party’s intentions behind its planned street protests against alleged rigging in the last year’s elections, starting with a rally in Islamabad on May 11.

The timing of the PTI’s anti-rigging drive a year after the elections were held has left most guessing about Imran Khan’s real objectives behind his decision at a time when Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) also plans to simultaneously launch its protest campaign across several major cities against the ‘stolen public mandate’ and when the government’s relations with the military are believed to be not the most cordial.

Though both parties claim that their protests are not linked in any way, a large number of people remain unconvinced. The PAT has shifted its rally to Rawalpindi to allow Imran Khan to ‘smoothly’ hold his show at D-Chowk in Islamabad.

There’s also no dearth of people who see a hidden agenda supported by forces ‘averse to seeing democratic rule flourish’ in the country behind the decision of the two parties to start protests. Some analysts argue that it is but natural for people in these circumstances to have suspicions about the intentions of the PTI and suspect it of supporting the agenda of forces not known for their love for civilian rule.

PTI leaders brush aside such fears. “We aren’t the kind of people who would look towards the military. We’re on the side of democracy. There should be no doubt about it. The scrutiny of election results will only strengthen democracy,” insisted PTI secretary-general Jehangir Tareen.

As the PTI is alleging rigging on 64 seats, mostly in Punjab, where it thinks its mandate was stolen by returning officers in favour of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), analysts like Hasan Askari Rizvi think that Imran Khan is now ‘fighting for Punjab’.

“He is aware that Nawaz Sharif is faced with difficulties in Punjab and hasn’t been able to address key issues like power outages causing public alienation with his government. His government’s relations with the military are also strained. By demonstrating his street power and cashing in on growing public alienation with the ruling party, Imran Khan hopes to make inroads in Punjab as well as win the sympathy of the military. Politically, it’s a shrewd move on his part,” he concluded.

Major political parties like the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Awami National Party and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam are also suspicious of the PTI’s agenda. “We’re also a victim of rigging. But we decided against making it an issue because it isn’t in the best interest of democracy,” said Manzoor Wattoo, the PPP’s Punjab president. “Democracy cannot survive such protests. It is not the time to weaken civilian rule through street protests. The [democratic] system will collapse if we don’t move cautiously.”

Political scientists like Javed Hassan agree that rigging had taken place in the elections. “But the PTI’s mandate wasn’t stolen as it alleges. Indeed, there was a media hype about the electoral prospects of the PTI but it never stood a chance of forming a government,” the Lums professor contended.

He saw the planned PTI protests aimed at diverting public attention from its poor performance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and building a campaign for itself in the local bodies polls in that province. He didn’t see other parties supporting the PTI protest. “Even its coalition partner in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has so far not responded to its call.”

There are also people like Wattoo who believe that the PTI feels it could eventually force mid-term polls by proving that the elections were rigged. “If it is proved that the elections were rigged in some constituencies, it will erode the credibility of the entire exercise. The government will lose its moral justification of staying in power and we will eventually have to hold mid-term polls. The PPP is not in favour of this though.”

The PTI leaders don’t admit it in so many words but they are also expecting mid-term polls once their charges of rigging are proved. “If it is proved that elections in 64 constituencies were stolen, what moral right will the PML-N have to hold on to government?” Tareen asked, as he rejected criticism that his party’s protests would compound the problems of terrorism and energy shortages facing the people. “No government with a doubtful mandate can address the economic and security challenges facing the country,” he said.

It is not yet clear if the PTI has the kind of street power it thinks it wields to initiate the scrutiny of election results of the constituencies it says were stolen from it. But if it succeeds in discrediting the election results and sustaining the protest drive for a long period, the PML-N government will have a tough time.