Protesters have lined the streets outside the headquarters of Pakistan’s powerful military in an unprecedented show of defiance ahead of a delicately poised election on Wednesday that the armed forces and its ISI spy agency are accused of manipulating.
Local media avoided details of the weekend demonstration in Rawalpindi but footage circulated rapidly via WhatsApp. Clips show a highly charged crowd blocking the path of a pick-up truck packed with soldiers, then following it down the street, as protesters threw their arms in the air and shouted “death to the Khalai Makhlooq”, a common euphemism for the intelligence agency that translates as “extraterrestrials”.
The protest followed claims by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) that state security agencies are hobbling the party’s re-election campaign, in which it faces former cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
The party says a series of court cases and pressure on supportive media come as revenge for its efforts to curb military power in office over the past five years. In recent weeks, polls show the PML-N’s nationwide popularity falling amid a surge for its rivals.
The party’s supporters in Rawalpindi had reacted furiously on Saturday to the conviction of a local PML-N candidate four days before the vote in a drug-smuggling case that had been pending for seven years.
Earlier, a judge had claimed that ISI agents leaned on the supreme court to punish the PML-N’s leader, Nawaz Sharif, who was imprisoned this month on corruption charges.
“ISI approached my chief justice and said we don’t want Sharif and his daughter out [of prison] before the polls” said Shaukat Siddiqui, who faces corruption charges himself.
A spokesperson for the army, Gen Asif Ghafoor, on Sunday ordered an investigation into the claims. The military denies any meddling.
The Rawalpindi protests have brought fresh vitriol to Punjab, the largest, wealthiest and traditionally most pro-military of Pakistan’s four provinces.
Daniyal Aziz, a former PML-N cabinet member who was disqualified from running in the election on charges of contempt of court, told the Guardian the perception of military interference could destabilise the region, whose 110-million-strong population has long favoured the PML-N.
“The anchor [of Pakistan’s stability] was Punjab,” he said, comparing the situation to the poorer federally administered tribal areas and Balochistan, where dissent has historically been quashed by a heavy handed military response.
“These actions against the PML-N are causing that to unravel,” he said, adding: “It’s going to keep on ratcheting” if the PML-N loses the election.
The protests were marked by the migration into Punjab of chants of “The uniforms are behind the terrorists”, a slogan popularised by the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM). The peaceful protest group that swept Pakistan this year with allegations the military lies behind a litany of civil rights abuses – including thousands of so-called enforced disappearances and support for Taliban factions – in the northern tribal regions.
PML-N officials believe that the conviction of its candidate in Rawalpindi, Hanif Abbasi, for smuggling ephedrine was manipulated by the ISI. If the the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had not later postponed the election in Rawalpindi, citing the media furore, Abbasi’s sentencing would have granted victory to his rival, the pro-military candidate, Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad.
“The ISI is definitely involved,” the PML-N worker Shafkat Mehmood Malik told the Guardian.
Others who attended the protest told the Guardian that a long-standing tradition of not criticising the army was breaking down. “No one used to blame ISI directly,” Zahid Hussain Satti said, “not even the prime minister. But the army is losing popularity all over Pakistan, not only in Punjab.”
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent watchdog, last week warned of blatant attempts to manipulate the outcome of the election.
Nawaz Sharif has turned his party’s campaign into an rebuke of military interference – naming an ISI general as behind the campaign against the PML-N and using the slogan “Respect the vote”. According to perception surveys conducted on behalf of the armed forces, its reputation in Punjab has suffered.
How far the anger of party aficionados is shared across the province will only become clear after the vote on 25 July. “I don’t think there is a grassroots Punjabi movement against the establishment,” said the Harvard academic Asad Liaqat, using a common term for the army. But he said it was “in the strategic self-interest” of the PML-N to try to whip up anger ahead of the vote in order to encourage turnout.
The latest survey, by the Herald newspaper and Sustainable Development Policy Institute, shows the PML-N retaining a 7% lead in the province, which returns 141 of 272 seats in the national assembly. So far research suggests its voters care more about the economy and job prospects than protecting democracy, or ending corruption (as the PTI promises). If that pattern holds, a PTI-led coalition is the likeliest result nationwide on Wednesday, but the Rawalpindi protest could echo for years to come.
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