PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif on Sunday, while addressing the much-hyped PPP-hosted multiparty conference in Islamabad, said that the opposition's struggle was not against Prime Minister Imran Khan but those who brought him into power through the 2018 elections.
He was addressing the conference, aimed at devising a strategy to oust the PTI-led coalition government, via video link from London. The speech marked the deposed prime minister's political comeback after more than a year. He has been in the UK since November last year for medical treatment.
"Our foremost priority should be removing this selected government and this system. Our struggle is not against Imran Khan," said Nawaz. "Today, our struggle is against those who installed Imran Khan and who manipulated elections to bring an incapable man like him into power and thus, destroyed the country."
"If change is not brought, it will bring irreversible loss to this country. It is very important that our armed forces stay away from our governmental system according to our Constitution and the Quaid's speech, and not interfere with the people's choice. We have made this country a joke in our own eyes and internationally as well."
Prior to a recess for lunch, the speakers — PML-N's Nawaz and Shehbaz Sharif and PPP's Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari — were united in underscoring the "need for a plan of action".
Nawaz breaks his silence
Nawaz started by thanking PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari for hosting the conference as well as Zardari, saying he would not forget the love with which the former president spoke to him a day earlier.
"I am thankful to the organisers of the conference for giving me the opportunity to talk. Even though I am away from my country, I know very well what condition the country and the people are in. I believe this is a decisive turn; it is necessary to protect democracy [...] and take fearless decisions."
In an all-encompassing speech, which centred on criticising the Imran Khan-led government, Nawaz spoke on the "poor state" of Pakistan's economy, "deteriorating" international relations, "muzzling" of media and "corruption within the PTI and Bani Gala".
"The country's leader keeps harping on about accountability but he himself is involved in raising sugar prices. Will no reference be filed against him?"
He also repeated the opposition's allegation that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), with the connivance of PTI, was carrying out only "selective accountability".
'Democracy in danger'
"If we don't do it [take a step] today, when will we?" asked Nawaz.
"I agree with Maulana [Fazlur Rehman, chief of JUI-F] that we need to make this conference purposeful or people will be disappointed.
"Pakistan has been constantly deprived of a democratic system [...] When the vote is dishonoured, the entire democratic system becomes meaningless. When it is decided before the election process as to who will win and who will lose, then it can be guessed how the public is betrayed and how the public's mandate is stolen."
Pakistan has become a laboratory of "such experiments", added Nawaz. "Every child knows that no prime minister has been allowed to complete five years in power."
All dictators have spent multiple years while premiers have hardly been allowed to complete their term, he said.
"When a dictator was first brought into the courtroom for violating the Constitution, you saw what happened. Court gave dictators the right to play with the Constitution and acquitted someone who broke the Constitution twice [...] Whereas the ones who follow the Constitution are still in jail."
Nawaz said former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani once pointed to "a state within a state" in Pakistan. "It is saddening that the situation has escalated to a state above the state. This parallel government illness is the root-cause of our problems."
Speaking about the 2018 elections, he said the primary reason for the current problems were those people who "hijacked the people's mandate by putting inexperienced people in power". "This is a violation of the Constitution. Has anyone given a thought to what a grave crime it is to steal the people's mandate?"
"Can I ask why the Results Transmission System (RTS) was closed for hours during election, why polling agents were thrown out during counting? Why was dhandli done, on whose directives and why? The secretary Election Commission should answer and all those responsible will have to answer."
Nawaz alleged the government has enforced a "martial law" . "Criminals are allowed to make amendments to the Constitution [...] the people's premier is expelled and his family is insulted.
"This conference should bring forth a concrete plan of action for saving democracy, a concrete policy should be made for solving the problem of 'a parallel state'.
"I again urge this all-party conference to go beyond its traditional ways and form a plan of action."
Opening remarks by Zardari
Earlier, former president Zardari delivered the opening speech at the multiparty conference, also through video link.
Zardari thanked Nawaz Sharif for virtually attending the conference and asked everyone to pray for the former prime minister's health. Both Zardari and Nawaz, who are facing corruption cases, are currently out on bail on account of their health.
In his remarks, Zardari criticised the government over what he called were "tactics" to suppress the opposition and media.
He welcomed Maryam, PML-N vice-president and daughter of Nawaz Sharif, and said he was happy to see her at the conference. "We have seen the difficulties she has faced and we can understand because my own sister has gone to jail and my wife went to jail [...] We pay tribute to her and we are with you, and will keep fighting for your cause and you will keep fighting for ours, I am sure."
'Plan of action'
In his speech, Bilawal emphasised the need for the multiparty conference to come up with a proper plan of action for "gaining freedom for the people".
"If [the people's] elected representatives cannot even speak in parliament and get their votes re-counted, what hope will the nation have?" he asked. He demanded that the opposition be given a level-playing field — not only in politics and media but in parliament as well.
He urged the opposition to unite and launch a movement similar to the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in the past."We are standing with the decision this forum takes and are willing to fight till our last breath," he said.
PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif took the mic next, saying that the dictatorships in the country's history had not only put a black mark on democracy but also damaged the judiciary.
Talking about the 2018 elections, he said: "Remember when a selected government came into power and the selected prime minister promised the nation that the discrepancy in the elections, the disappearance of the RTS system, and the pre-engineering of election results would be investigated."
Shehbaz claimed that the committee formed to investigate had not made even "an inch of progress".
"[The government] alleges that the opposition did not cooperate. I am ready for a probe so what bigger lie can there be?"
'Time for action, not just talk'
Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, while addressing the participants of the conference, called upon the opposition parties to "take concrete decisions" and resign from the assemblies they have been elected to. He said that Sindh Assembly, where PPP is in a majority, should also be dissolved. Sindh is the only province where an opposition party is in power.
He also criticised the opposition parties for "stepping back" and said: "You people are the reason they (government) has survived for two years."
Rehman said that it was time to take "practical steps", adding that in order to run a successful movement against the government, trust must be established.
"The option of compromise is not available," he declared and called for a boycott of all government ceremonies, non-participation in legislative process, detachment from all international agreements made by the "unconstitutional government".
Referring to laws passed to curb money laundering, Rehman said: "Don't you all know that whether it's black money or illegal money transfer; the actual budget of secret agencies comes from that. So when we say that the money goes to terrorists, the money that goes to support state-sponsored terrorism should also be blocked."
Leaders of PPP, including chairperson Bilawal, started arriving at a five-star hotel in the capital, where the conference was being held, on Sunday morning. Senator Sherry Rehman while speaking to the media said that today's would a "historic all-party conference".
Rehman had earlier told Dawn that heads and representatives of 12 opposition parties would be attending the conference. Jamaat-i-Islami, however, distanced itself from the gathering.
PML-N, National Party (NP), Awami National Party (ANP), Qaumi Watan Party (QWP), Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) and Jamiatul Hadees participated in the conference.
The PML-N delegation, under party president and Leader of the Opposition Shehbaz Sharif, arrived at the conference with Khawaja Asif, Ahsan Iqbal, Ayaz Sadiq, Pervaiz Rasheed, Maryam Nawaz, Khawaja Saad Rafique, Rana Sanaullah, Ameer Maqam and Marriyum Aurangzeb.
Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Political Communication Shahbaz Gill, who held a press conference early on Sunday, reiterated the government's stance that the opposition would not be given any NRO-like (National Reconciliation Ordinance) concession.
Minister for Information and Broadcasting Shibli Faraz termed the multiparty conference "a flimsy attempt to put pressure on the government to back off on accountability".
"PM Imran Khan will never compromise on his commitment against corruption. Hence no NRO," he said ahead of the conference.
Following news of Nawaz's address, Gill had warned that “the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) and other legal options” would be used if the PML-N supremo's speech was aired by TV channels.
The speech, however, was aired by TV channels as well as live streamed on social media platforms. Gill told Geo News that Prime Minister Imran said that Nawaz Sharif's address should be aired so that "his lies could be exposed" to the nation.