LAHORE: Zaman Park has undergone a world of change. It was once the epitome of the long-established order, the game of cricket being a cornerstone of the life of leisure that its inhabitants appeared to lead. Now this place is buzzing with chants of change. A prominent resident of the locality — Imran Khan — has taken it upon himself to bring down the old order and build a new Pakistan.
His supporters from as far as Rahimyar Khan have been arriving here for the past couple of days to participate in the ‘azadi march’ that he promises will topple what he sees as a corrupt, unfair social and economic system and replace it with a new one offering equal opportunity to everyone. The number of protesters gathering here is swelling by the hour the night before the planned march, as small convoys continue to arrive.
The crowd outside the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chief’s home mostly comprises men in their early 20s. Many women and teenagers can also be spotted roaming about the place, waving party flags and chanting slogans of change. No one appears worried about the shipping containers the government is using to seal off Islamabad and prevent the protesters from entering the federal capital.
“We’re going to Islamabad Thursday morning, no matter what. We have made arrangements to remove the shipping containers to enter the city. Nothing can stop us. We also know how to handle the police if the government uses force to scuttle our peaceful protest,” Naqi Abbas tells Dawn.
“We will not accept anything short of Nawaz Sharif’s resignation and a new election,” says the college student who, for the past three days, has been busy making preparations for the long journey to Islamabad.
Like their leader, the protesters remain unimpressed by the prime minister’s late response to their demand for an inquiry into allegations of vote-rigging in last year’s general elections. “The government has announced a court probe a little too late,” says Mohammad Subhan, another PTI worker from Samanabad, as he repeats what Khan has been telling the media over and over again for the past several weeks.
Khan has already spurned the prime minister’s offer of a judicial inquiry into the vote-rigging allegations, saying it is too little, too late and vowed to press ahead with his march on Islamabad to force Nawaz Sharif’s resignation to pave the way for the formation of a neutral government that can implement electoral reforms and organise new elections.
Political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi says the government realised the “gravity of the situation” very late in the day. He appreciates the recent government efforts to defuse the situation, but says the rulers should have changed their tone months ago.
“Moreover, the government’s conciliatory tone has not changed the ground reality,” he notes. “Instead of allowing Imran Khan to freely take out his protest march, the government is demanding certain assurances from him. It has also cited intelligence reports of possible terrorist attacks [as a reason] for not unsealing Islamabad and letting the protesters enter the capital,” he says, referring to a late-night news conference by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.
“They [the government] should realise that it is not possible to settle the details of the protest at this stage. The better course for the government is to allow the PTI protest march and sit-in without any conditions. It would, perhaps, have created an opportunity for reconciliation between the two opponents,” he asserts.
Analysts agree that the government’s delayed conciliatory efforts had left Khan with no choice but to carry on with his anti-government protest. “If Imran is pressing ahead with his protest in spite of the softer language being used by the government and the concessions the prime minister has announced in the form of a court probe into the vote-rigging allegations, it means that the PTI leader hasn’t lost the hope of achieving his objectives,” a political scientist who teaches at a private university says on condition of anonymity.
He does not rule out the possibility of the protesters being backed by the military establishment, or even being a part of it. He also sees possible intervention by the military leadership, as the final arbiter in such situations, for the resolution of the crisis. “Now that every politician, including the chief of the Jamaat-i-Islami, the PTI’s coalition partner in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has failed to dissuade Imran Khan from calling off his protest march, who but the military is left to mediate between him and the government?” he asks. Yet he refuses to say who he thinks the military will throw its weight behind.
However, Hasan Askari Rizvi doesn’t see the army drag itself into the dispute unless violence breaks out in the country. “If that happens, then the military will be forced to step in.”
With Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif and interior minister Nisar meeting the chief of the army staff on Wednesday, Rizvi believes the “Nawaz government is trying to tell the people that the military is on their side”.
The question is: will Khan be able to achieve his chief objective of ousting Nawaz Sharif and getting a re-election without the military’s intervention?
Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2014