Islamabad, Pakistan – Thousands of anti-government protesters led by right-wing political leader Fazl-ur-Rehman are poised to enter the Pakistani capital Islamabad, after a five-day march through the country where they have demanded Prime Minister Imran Khan resign and fresh elections be held.
Rehman, chief of the Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) party, led the protesters through southern Sindh and central Punjab provinces and into the outskirts of Islamabad on Wednesday.
“The government will have to hand over power back to the people,” he said on Wednesday night, addressing supporters in the central city of Gujranwala, about 200km south of Islamabad.
“They have destroyed the economy.”
The country’s main opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have supported the JUI-F’s protest.
Since last week , the government has moved to strip Hafiz Hamdullah, an outspoken JUI-F leader, of Pakistani citizenship and has also arrested another major leader.
On Thursday, the government banned the youth volunteer wing of the JUI-F, called Ansar ul-Islam, as a “terrorist organisation”.
The JUI-F has challenged the decisions against Hamdullah and Ansar ul-Islam in court.
On Thursday, heavy contingents of riot police were deployed throughout the capital, Islamabad, with roadblocks set up to prevent protesters from approaching the city’s government quarter.
Cyril Almeida, a Pakistani political analyst, said the government “should be worried” by the march.
“The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf [PTI] government is inexperienced and its ability to peacefully defuse a political crisis will be tested now,” he said. “If the government panics or overreacts and that sparks violence, matters could spiral out of control.”
All three main opposition parties allege Khan’s PTI party won a controversial 2018 general election through election rigging, and that the government’s handling of the economy has been incompetent.
The PTI swept to power for the first time in its 23-year history in that vote, winning 156 seats in the 342-member lower house of parliament and also forming provincial governments in Punjab, the country’s largest province, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
International election observers certified while polling day last year was observed to be largely fair, there were serious concerns regarding fairness in the run-up to the election, including intimidation of the PTI’s opponents and the filing of corruption cases and arrests of their political leadership.
Before the protest, some JUI-F leaders were outspoken in naming the country’s powerful military as being responsible for the rigging, a charge the institution denies.
Pakistan‘s military has ruled the country for roughly half of its 72-year history.
Since the PTI came to power, political opponents – including the chiefs of the PPP and PML-N parties – have been jailed on corruption charges and news media have often been censored from covering opposition activities.
One of the main drivers of the anti-government protest has been the PTI’s handling of the economy, with inflation at 11.4 percent amid slowing growth.
Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund predicted Pakistan’s economic growth would further slow to 2.4 percent next year, from its current forecast of 3.3 percent for 2019.
The PTI took power with Pakistan in the midst of an economic crisis, with spiralling current account and fiscal deficits, dwindling foreign reserves and a depreciating currency.
In May, the IMF finalised a $6bn bailout, to be paid out over more than three years, to help bolster foreign reserves for the struggling economy.
The IMF programme seeks to make structural reforms that would see Pakistan privatise major state-owned assets, rationalise its utility tariffs, and bring its currency closer to a free-float.
In the last year, Pakistan’s currency has depreciated by about 18 percent, driving up the cost of imports such as oil, industrial raw materials and many consumer products.
These steps have been accompanied by an increase in taxes aimed at broadening the country’s tax base and increasing revenues to bridge the fiscal deficit. The central bank has also raised interest rates by a cumulative 575 basis points in the last fiscal year.
On Tuesday, traders across the country pulled down their shutters to strike against the government’s economic policies, accusing them of being driven by the IMF’s directions.