While listening to rival party leaders speak in the National Assembly on Thursday, fears that the protest rally called by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) for May 11 in the square in front of the Parliament House might degenerate into violence appeared dissipating – only until the ruling PML-N’s Saad Rafique rose to speak. His sarcastic, and unexplained, remark that there was “a different story” behind the protest infuriated PTI members who claim the rally is being held to protest the rigging in the general election the same day a year ago, that robbed the party of many seats.
Before they could retaliate, however, the Speaker adjourned the house.
That leaves the question open what this May 11 holds for national politics in the charged atmosphere of a media house in tussle with the military establishment, with the political government trying to act neutral and Imran Khan supporting the military.
It cannot be an echo though of the five-day sit-in Allama Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) held in the same square, in January 2013, demanding constitutional changes before holding the general election, hailed later as the first time civilian transfer of power in the history of Pakistan.
Followers of the Canada-based PAT chief also will be out rallying on May 11 but this time in the neighbouring garrison city of Rawalpindi.
Although the primary aim of the PTI is to protest the painfully slow action by the election tribunals on the more than 60 complaints of rigging its candidates had filed against their rival candidates, political analysts feel people’s anger over power shortage and rising inflation and unemployment will add fuel to their fire.
Some of them even see a major clash between the PTI and PML-N emerging from the rally.
But the cautious within the PTI worry what if party activists do not turn up in strength on May 11?
“In the run up to the 2013 general elections party workers were hoping for a change and responded enthusiastically to Imran Khan’s calls. It is different situation now. Many don’t think it is an opportune time for protest demonstrations and some are not happy with the performance of the party’s government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” said a PTI leader requesting anonymity.
Then there is the fear that street demonstrations in the prevailing atmosphere might bring harm to the present political dispensation. Party president Javed Hashmi himself has said that he would stand by the side of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif if democracy is in danger, he said.
PTI has built its reputation of a crowd puller over the years and in a hard way. The huge rallies it organized prior to the 2013 general election paid it off handsomely at the hustling, albeit the alleged rigging. PTI emerged the third largest political party in the National Assembly, after the heavyweights PML-N and the PPP, and the largest in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly and rules the province.
Since then, the May 11 rally would be its first show of power and party organizers feel nervous how it would go.
“It’s not that we are not putting the effort we did in the past, but somehow the gusto and passion seems missing,” said one organizer. “If the meeting doesn’t go as planned, it will be a big blow to the party’s image.”
Dr Arif Alvi, PTI’s only MNA from Sindh, acknowledged the importance of party’s show on Sunday and is hopeful of the party raising another tsunami.
“I don’t understand why people are confusing our protest against fraudulent elections with their hypothetical judgments,” he said. “PTI never demanded mid-term elections or asked the PML-N government to resign. Our only demand is to purge the bureaucracy of corrupt elements who play dirty by helping others steal people’s mandate in general elections, and thus ensure fair and transparent elections in the future.”
PTI will not sit back until it has forced the government to take necessary measures to reform the election process, he asserted.
According to him, the present electoral system only serves the politicians who are good at manipulating election results in their favour.
Meanwhile, the government is keeping a close tab on the PTI’s protest plan. An aide to the prime minister said that the fact remained that the plan didn’t match the well-funded media campaigns that preceded PTI’s street shows in the past.
“Nor have we noticed any significant activity (of the PTI) on social media, a known turf for its workers, to make efforts for the planned gathering a huge success.”
Then there will be Allama Tahirul Qadri staging his show in Rawalpindi, robbing PTI of some crowd, said the aide.