Opposition protests have gathered momentum in Pakistan as tens of thousands of people defied coronavirus restrictions to demand Prime Minister Imran Khan step down and renew criticism over the military’s role in politics.
An alliance of 11 opposition parties, known as the Pakistan Democratic Movement, demonstrated in the central city of Lahore on Sunday, in the culmination of the first phase of protests before a planned march on the capital of Islamabad in January to pile pressure on Khan’s government.
The parties of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto are part of the movement.
Double-digit inflation, a poor economy, curbs on civil liberties and media censorship are cited by the opposition as the reason for the protests.
Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder, reporting from Islamabad, said the opposition was keen to portray Sunday’s rally as a “referendum” but the government was “determined to stay in power” and not “buckle under pressure”.
“There are signs, according to some analysts, that the economy is recovering,” Hyder said, adding that the protests were described by the government as “more [of] a ploy” to distract from the corruption charges against Sharif.
The three-time prime minister was forced by the Supreme Court to step down over corruption allegations in 2017 and was convicted and sentenced to a prison term a year later, just days ahead of the general election won by Khan.
He has been living in the United Kingdom since November 2019, when he left Pakistan on medical bail to receive treatment for a blood platelet issue that doctors said threatened his life.
Sharif, who blames generals and judges for what he says were trumped up charges, was expected to address the Lahore rally through video-link from London.
At previous rallies, he has accused the army and intelligence chiefs of rigging the 2018 national elections to block his party from seeking a new term.
For his part, Khan has accused Sharif of “playing” regional foe “India’s game” by criticising Pakistan’s powerful military.