Islamabad, Pakistan – Tens of thousands of activists from Pakistan’s ruling party and opposition groups have descended on the capital, Islamabad, ahead of a parliamentary vote seeking to topple the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Khan, under mounting political pressure, had urged supporters from across the country to gather on Sunday for a show of strength ahead of the crucial vote expected next week.
“It is a battle for the future of our nation,” the cricketer-turned-politician said in an audio message released on Twitter on Sunday.
Activists from Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party started arriving in the early morning at the venue, a parade ground near the Faizabad Interchange, where people danced to party anthems and shouted slogans such as “long live Imran Khan”.
PTI leaders said they expected more than a million people to attend the rally, even though some say the venue cannot accommodate more than 30,000.
Addressing the rally on Sunday, Khan said that a “foreign conspiracy” was behind the no-confidence motion and that “funding was being channelled into Pakistan from abroad.
“We have been threatened in writing but we will not compromise on national interests,” he said, without providing details or evidence.
Opposition supporters are also gathering in Islamabad ahead of planned anti-Khan protests on Monday.
Supporters of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party began a “long march” on Saturday to the capital from the eastern city of Lahore, the political bastion of Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party.
Thousands of activists from the conservative Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (F) party are also marching on Islamabad to join anti-government protests.
Special security arrangements have been made for the rallies and about 13,000 personnel including paramilitary forces have been deployed in different parts of the city to prevent clashes.
The opposition is likely to table the motion of no confidence on Monday. After at least three days of debate, the vote can take place and must be held within seven days.
‘More hype than reality’
The PTI faced criticism for not allowing media cameras at Sunday’s rally, citing security reasons.
“I think there is more hype than reality [about the number of people] and PTI does not want that to be exposed,” local journalist Kamran Yousaf, whose media team was barred from entry, told Al Jazeera.
Outside the parade ground, a number of stalls were set up overnight. Among them was 40-year-old vendor Muhammad Imran, who came from the port city of Karachi to sell T-shirts printed with “Absolutely Not” – Khan’s response on giving Pakistani bases to the United States for Afghanistan operations after the Taliban’s takeover in Kabul.
Roads in the city were full of colourful banners of different parties and portraits of Khan, while the city had a festive feel as a number of young activists descended on Islamabad.
“Khan will defeat the looters [opposition groups] and we have come to support him irrespective of his shortcomings,” Usman Ali, a student, told Al Jazeera.
But a few yards away, 18-year-old Muhammad Awais, busy selling white chana chaat, a local delicacy, was angry with Khan’s government.
“We, the poor, have been hit hard by the ever-increasing food prices and dwindling income,” Awais said.
‘Their days are numbered’
As the rally began on Sunday, PTI leaders slammed the opposition.
“[Khan] has the courage and ability to withstand foreign pressures and have an independent foreign policy,” Qasim Suri, deputy speaker of Pakistan’s National Assembly, said in a speech.
But the PTI, which has a razor-thin majority in the National Assembly, has been losing allies – with a number of defections ahead of the confidence vote.
Baloch leader Nawabzada Shahzain Bugti announced his resignation as a minister and said he will join the opposition.
Khan came to power in 2018 in national elections marred by allegations that he was supported by Pakistan’s powerful military.
But some say he now appears to have lost the military’s support.
“He came to power after he was patronised [by the military]. We are not afraid of his threats and rallies,” Rana Sanaullah, a close aide of Sharif, told reporters in the capital.
“Their [government] days are numbered”, he said.