The Pakistani government led by Prime Minster Nawaz Sharif and his party PML-N are taking extraordinary measures to prevent two opposition parties, led by populist politicians Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri, from launching massive anti-government marches to the capital on Pakistan's independence day August 14.
The government claims to be acting upon intelligence reports that the protests could turn bloody.
Despite the Lahore High Court's short order that the marches should not proceed because of “independence day and the chaotic and uncertain situation prevailing in the country”, both parties — Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) — are determined to march to the capital.
Popular cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan leads PTI, and PAT is led by a Sufi scholar-turned-politician and recently returned expat from Canada Tahirul Qadri. Both allege that the May 2013 general election, which brought Sharif's party to power in a landslide victory, was rigged. They are marching to the capital to demand that the prime minister step down.
Since the evening of August 13, parts of capital city Islamabad and Pakistan's second largest city Lahore have been blocked off with shipping containers to restrict movement. Some areas are expected to be without cellular services for the duration of the marches.
If the PMLN doesn't remove containers in Lahore, then it will be a serious contempt of court #IKonARY
— PTI (@PTIofficial) August 13, 2014
In the days leading up to August 14, the government acquired hundreds of shipping containers to be used as hurdles along the streets and highways between Islamabad and Lahore, where many protesters are launching their march from. The journey between both cities is nearly 400 kilmeters (250 miles).
Popular Islamabad-based TV news host Moeed Pirzada tweeted:
#Islamabad again being sealed? Nawaz Govt has been changing it's position so frequently that it is impossible now to trust whatever they say
— Moeed Pirzada (@MoeedNj) August 13, 2014
The government has rejected allegations that the election was rigged and says their security measures are a response to reports that there will be blood if the protests advance. Intelligence reports suggest that “some hired-guns have infiltrated into the PAT ranks and they would initiate a clash with law-enforcement personnel (who will then) resort to firing on the workers.”
According to the latest reports, police will allow PTI workers to continue their march while PAT workers will be stopped.
The BBC's Ilyas Khan has taken these reports a step further in his analysis “The threat of Pakistan's angry young marchers“:
Neither of them began life as career politicians, but they now command vocal support and their angry rhetoric has the power to marshal equally angry crowds. Analysts say these young people are Mr Qadri's captive audience, and can be as militant or as docile as the words he employs to motivate them.
The parties have been planning their marches for weeks. PTI and PAT are social media savvy and are led by charismatic leaders who have proven to have street appeal attracting thousands in previous marches.
Nawaz Sharif acting like Hosni Mubarak in cracking down on r democratic right to protest. But we r resolved to undertake r Azadi March.
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) August 9, 2014
The marches on social media
Both parties are marching under different banners and agendas. PTI's march has been branded azadi or freedom, and PAT's march is being called inquilab or revolution.
PTI has been promoting their azadi march through their party's official Facebook page's close to 1.5 million fans, their party's official Twitter account‘s 424K followers and Imran Khan's official Twitter account's 1.9 million followers.
PTI has launched a “Real People, Real Sentiments” campaign featuring protesters and children.
— PTI (@PTIofficial) August 13, 2014
Containers blocking roads
According to Newstribe, the police has blocked off most entry points into Islamabad with 400 shipping containers.
Shahzad Ahmed, the Pakistan director for Bytes for All, posted this on his Facebook:
Probably I was the last person to exit #Islamabad from Kashmir Highway. Then, I had whole motorway for myself It was a bit frightening experience Capital is sealed now from KPK side!
The parties have posted pictures of various roads dug up in Islamabad as an attempt to hinder the protests. An Islamabad-based security analyst posted this map showing the different points containers have been placed in Islamabad:
Karachi-based journalist Omar Quraishi tweeted:
PTI's been circulating this pic on Twitter of a barricaded Isb – I also tweeted it assuming its today – its from 2013 pic.twitter.com/8p3RslQJfu
— omar r quraishi (@omar_quraishi) August 13, 2014
PAT's troubles with PML-N in Lahore
PAT's head offices are in Model Town, Lahore. PAT workers clashed with police there earlier this week and in June. The June clashes left dozens injured and killed eight people. The area around PAT's head office has been blocked by shipping containers since the clashes earlier this week.
Due to Model Town siege, another PAT activist has sadly passed away as containers didn't allow him to be hospitalized. #BrutalityofPMLN
— Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri (@TahirulQadri) August 12, 2014
Lahore is the capital of Punjab province, and political violence here is rare. It is also the home city of the country's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; his brother Shahbaz Sharif is the province's chief minister.
Election rigging allegations
On Wednesday, a day before the marches, the government asked the Supreme Court to set up a panel of judges to investigate claims of rigging in last year's general election, a move announced by Sharif late on Tuesday night in an attempt to ease the brewing political tension. The judicial probe was a key demand of Khan but he rejected Sharif's proposal and demanded he step down.
Leading the marches
Both leaders are considered Pakistan's next generation of politicians.
Cricketer-turned-popular politician Imran Khan is the chairman of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf. Imran Khan's party emerged as the second largest in terms of votes won in the 2013 elections, though it finished in third place in terms of the tally of parliament seats. Khan's party commands a great strength amongst Pakistan's youth and has sizable street power as well.
Dr. Tahirul Qadri is a politician and a religious scholar of Sufism, who has written several books and leads the Canada-based Islamic studies organization “Minhajul Quran international organization”. He lived primarily in Canada up until recently. Dr. Qadri first protested with a mass following in 2012 against the corruption of the PPP's government led by Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto's widower. He registered his political party Pakistan Awame-e-Tehrik in Pakistan in 1989, but it was largely dormant for many years. His party's sudden street power in the 2012 protest took many political analysts by surprise.
PTI has successfully used digital medium in the past and this time around deployed an Ushahidi based platform to track reports on the march as well. It also publicizes the use of #AzadiMarchPTI hashtag extensively.
Currently, public opinion is severely polarized in Pakistan with people living in Islamabad fearful of what will happen August 14:
Beena Sarwar, a Pakistani journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Boston, tweets a petition asking the PAT chief's other home country Canada to intervene:
— Beena Sarwar (@beenasarwar) August 9, 2014
Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a satirist and columnist, recalls the days of politician Shahbaz sharif's protest against past president Asif Zardari:
Shahbaz Sharif wanted to hang Zardari from a pole in Lahore. Now he is himself hanging by a thread. Karmic irony.
— Nadeem F. Paracha (@NadeemfParacha) August 11, 2014
Bina Shah, a writer and New York Times columnist, quips:
So TUQ and Imran Khan in a container? What if Nawaz Sharif drives a crane to pick up the container and ship it to China?
— Bina Shah (@BinaShah) August 12, 2014
Awab Alvi, blogger and part of PTI's social media team, reports on Facebook:
Sindh Punjab border sealed by Sharif – what an amazing 14th Aug celebration by PM of Pakistan #AzadiMarchPTI
CSS point Blog reiterates that the government is not in the mood for confrontation:
The prime minister rejected a proposal to take the leadership of PTI and PAT into custody. “There is no question of arresting the leaders. Rather, we’ll see to what extent they may go,” Mr Sharif was quoted as saying.
He also rejected a proposal to bring PML-N workers on the road as a measure to counter the protests. “A clash between parties should be avoided at all cost,” he said, stressing the use of only administrative measures to keep the situation under control.
For now, it seems this year Pakistanis will cautiously be celebrating their independence day.
This is a developing story. Watch this space for updates.
Sahar Habib Ghazi contributed to this report.