Islamabad, Pakistan – Thousands of anti-government protesters demanding Prime Minister Imran Khan resign over worsening economic conditions and alleged election rigging have gathered in the Pakistani capital awaiting the arrival of a right-wing religious political leader.
Fazl-ur-Rehman, chief of the Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) party, has led a five-day march from the southern city of Karachi and through the length of the country with the goal of reaching Islamabad on Thursday.
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“The government will have to hand over power back to the people,” he said on Wednesday night, addressing supporters in the central city of Gujranwala, about 200km (124 miles) south of the capital.
“They have destroyed the economy.”
The country’s main opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have supported the JUI-F’s protest against Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which won last year’s controversial general election.
In Islamabad, thousands of JUI-F supporters gathered at a large ground designated for the protest, waving black-and-white striped party flags and cheering to political songs playing on loudspeakers mounted on pick-up trucks.
Mustafa, 33, a shopkeeper who travelled more than 250km (155 miles) from the northern town of Shangla to take part in the protest, said Khan “has not delivered … the things [he] promised on the campaign.
“Prices are now so expensive that we cannot afford anything,” added the 33-year-old.
Heavy contingents of police were deployed around the capital to secure the site of protest, but did not prevent citizens from taking part.
Since last week, the government has moved to strip Hafiz Hamdullah, an outspoken JUI-F leader, of Pakistani citizenship and arrested another major figurehead.
On Thursday, the government banned Ansar ul-Islam, the youth volunteer wing of the JUI-F, as a “terrorist organisation”.
The JUI-F has challenged the decisions against Hamdullah and Ansar ul-Islam in court.
Cyril Almeida, a Pakistani political analyst, said the government “should be worried” by the march.
“The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government is inexperienced and its ability to peacefully defuse a political crisis will be tested now,” he said. “If the government panics or overreacts and that sparks violence, matters could spiral out of control.”
The PTI swept to power for the first time in its 23-year history in that vote, winning 156 seats in the 342-member lower house of parliament. It also formed provincial governments in Punjab, the country’s largest province, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
All three main opposition parties allege Khan’s PTI party won the July 2018 vote through election rigging.
International election observers said they did not observe any serious violations on polling day, but added there were serious concerns regarding fairness in the run-up to the election, including intimidation of the PTI’s opponents and the filing of corruption cases and arrests of their political leadership.
Before the protest, some JUI-F leaders were outspoken in naming the country’s powerful military, which has ruled Pakistan for roughly half of its 72-year history, as being responsible for the rigging, a charge the institution denies.
Since the PTI came to power, political opponents – including the chiefs of the PPP and PML-N parties – have been jailed on corruption charges and news media have often been censored from covering opposition activities.
“We are democratic people, and this is not our government,” said Riwayatullah, 40, a protester. “It was brought here by someone else, and it has stolen our rights.”
One of the main drivers of the protest has been the PTI’s handling of the economy, with inflation at 11.4 percent amid slowing growth.
Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund predicted Pakistan’s economic growth would further slow to 2.4 percent next year, from its current forecast of 3.3 percent for 2019.
The PTI took power with Pakistan in the midst of an economic crisis, with spiralling current account and fiscal deficits, dwindling foreign reserves and a depreciating currency.
In May, the IMF finalised a $6bn bailout – to be paid out over more than three years – to help bolster foreign reserves for the struggling economy.
The IMF programme seeks to make structural reforms that would see Pakistan privatise major state-owned assets, rationalise its utility tariffs and bring its currency closer to a free-float.
In the last year, Pakistan’s currency has depreciated by about 18 percent, driving up the cost of imports such as oil, industrial raw materials and many consumer products.
These steps have been accompanied by an increase in taxes aimed at broadening the country’s tax base and increasing revenues to bridge the fiscal deficit. The central bank has also raised interest rates by a cumulative 575 basis points in the last fiscal year.
On Tuesday, traders across the country pulled down their shutters to protest against the government’s IMF-driven economic policies.