Economic woes are giving the alliance legs, but overturning a military-backed prime minister is a hard proposition.

Supporters of the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement carry their parties' flags during an anti-government rally in Quetta on Oct. 25.

Supporters of the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement carry their parties’ flags during an anti-government rally in Quetta on Oct. 25. BANARAS KHAN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Anew unified anti-government movement has emerged in Pakistan amid a worsening economic crisis. The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of 11 opposition parties, was formed in September and has held large rallies in three major cities. It plans more protests in the coming weeks and intends to march on Islamabad in January.

Fueled by large crowds and growing public anxiety about economic stress, the movement certainly has legs. But ousting Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government is a very tall order, thanks in great part to Khan’s backing by Pakistan’s powerful security forces.

Right now the PDM is pulling no punches. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) founder and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was convicted of corruption in 2018 but is now based in London after receiving medical bail, has delivered fiery video speeches at two different rallies. He called out by name the head of Pakistan’s army, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, accusing him of engineering Sharif’s ouster in 2017 as well as the 2018 election victory of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Rarely has a senior Pakistani leader made such specific allegations by name against a sitting army chief so publicly.

Opposition alliances have a long history in Pakistan. They have come together against military dictators, and with varying success. They helped remove Field Marshal Ayub Khan from the presidency in the late 1960s, but were less successful against Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s presidency in the 1980s. These alliances have also been deployed against civilian leaders, including one against Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 that resulted in the military coup that brought Zia to power.

None of these are exactly analogous to the current movement, though the one against Bhutto, spearheaded by the Pakistan National Alliance, bears many similarities. Like the PDM today, the Pakistan National Alliance targeted a civilian administration with a populist leader that it accused of benefiting from election-rigging and of implementing authoritarian measures and damaging economic policies. One main difference, though, is that today the PDM confronts a civilian leadership that enjoys military support. By contrast, studies show that some factions within the security establishment encouraged the Pakistan National Alliance to take a hard line on Bhutto.

If the PDM wants to remove Khan, or Bajwa, from power, it will need buy-in from the security establishment, which won’t be easy to get. The PDM may hope that by applying continuous pressure through large, sustained rallies and relentless naming and shaming, it can prompt the military—or, more realistically, powerful factions within the military—to turn on those at the top. To be sure, the military may be shaken by Sharif’s callout of Bajwa and by public expressions of contempt for the Army chief. Videos have emerged of crowds shouting slogans against him at one of the PDM rallies and in the streets of the city of Lahore. That this has happened in Punjab province—the political bastion of the PTI and home to most Army senior officers—is significant.

But pressure, shaming, and criticism won’t necessarily be enough. While it’s true that Army chiefs aren’t used to being publicly humiliated, it does happen—and it doesn’t always result in them getting sent packing, even when they feel the heat within the military ranks. After the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani faced anger within the Army and was shouted at by his own officers in town-hall meetings he held on multiple bases. But he stayed on.

There may also be limits to continued strong and direct anti-establishment messaging.

There may also be limits to continued strong and direct anti-establishment messaging.

Sharif’s speeches have put PDM leaders—including Sharif’s own party colleagues—in a tough spot. In a nation where the military helps nurture and sustain careers, it’s a big risk for mainstream politicians to bite the hand that feeds them. And it’s a particularly big risk for PDM leaders other than Sharif. The former premier—himself a one-time protégé of the Army—enjoys the safety of being abroad and, given his existing legal troubles, may already be entering the twilight of his political career. Tellingly, PDM leaders—even Sharif—emphasize that they resent the military’s intrusion into politics and the actions of Bajwa, but not the institution on the whole.

Another challenge for the PDM will be sustaining the movement. While Islamabad has been praised for getting the pandemic under control, recent data suggests a new surge in COVID-19 cases. If the numbers keep rising when winter weather sets in, the PDM could find itself under growing pressure to ease up on mass protests so that it doesn’t become a superspreader. Then again, a resurgent pandemic could also benefit the PDM by giving it more ammunition with which to criticize the government.

Additionally, the PDM could be subjected to a state crackdown. Islamabad has let the protests unfold so far, even though the PDM has crossed red lines with its criticism of military and intelligence leaders. Khan, however, has warned of consequences, vowing to get “tougher” with PDM leaders. After a rally in Karachi, an opposition PML-N leader, Muhammad Safdar—the husband of Maryam Nawaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, who is also a top PML-N leader—was arrested in his hotel room for shouting political slogans at the mausoleum of Pakistan’s founding leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Even more concerning was the way the arrest was carried out: Paramilitary forces known as Rangers, acting on the orders of intelligence operatives, kidnapped the provincial police chief and forced him to issue arrest orders for Safdar after he initially refused.

Broader crackdowns could slow the movement. But they could also embolden opposition supporters and lead to street protests. Unrest would mean all bets are off—but it could also provide an eventual off-ramp for negotiations toward a deal that allows each side to claim victory.

The article appeared in the Foreign Policy magazine on 27 October 2020