Cell phone service is down; gasoline, unavailable. Troops line the barricaded streets. In Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, no one can go in, and no one can get out.This is how Nawaz Sharif’s government has prepared for Pakistan’s Independence Day, as two politicians and their band of very angry supporters go all in and stage a “Freedom March” to try to bring down the government. Reuters reports:
Two groups, led by cricket star turned opposition politician Imran Khan and fiery cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, plan to converge on Islamabad on Thursday intent on forcing Sharif to call an early election little more than a year after his landslide victory at the polls.Police said on Wednesday that they had detained some 2,100 followers of the two populist opposition figures in the past few days, and with all the obstacles in their path it was uncertain how many protesters would reach the capital.
The burgeoning crisis is long in the making, and involves Imran Khan’s wild-eyed ambition, a year that has hardly gone according to Sharif’s plans, and a military that is none too supportive of the current Prime Minister. Khan, not content with 35 parliamentary seats and oversight of the remote Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, wants to hold the Prime Minister’s office himself. He saw an opportunity as the Sharif government waffled over his allegations of election fraud (later dismissed by both the election tribunals and the courts). His accusations have since broadened to include the former Supreme Court justice and the country’s largest news network, among others.The other agitator, Qadri, is more mysterious. Plucked from relative obscurity, Qadri first arrived on the scene in January 2013 when he led similar protests against the previous government. He seems to have the backing of Pakistan’s powerful military, which has bristled over Sharif’s insistence on trying former dictator and army chief Pervez Musharraf for treason. The military may be looking to weaken Sharif, and using Qadri to do it.The government’s response has been slow but heavy-handed. After two people were killed over the weekend as Qadri supporters tried to make their way to his house in Lahore, the government called in the army to preserve order. On Tuesday, just two days before the march was scheduled, Sharif made a televised address to the nation saying that he was willing to open a judicial inquiry into the allegations of fraud. It was too little, too late for Khan, who still insists that Sharif resign.Pakistan’s political scene has been tumultuous ever since its inception 67 years ago. But with the Middle East going to pieces next door, this is a particularly bad time for a nuclear-armed country to head toward trouble.