Amid mounting social discontent, Pakistan’s opposition parties to step up campaign for new elections

With Pakistan in the throes of mounting social, economic and geopolitical crises, Prime Minister Imran Khan and his right-wing populist Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) government are being pressured by a ten-party opposition alliance to step down and call fresh elections. An ultimatum on January 31 for the government to step down passed with no response. The opposition alliance subsequently announced that it would expand its campaign. Previous attempts by the government to stop opposition rallies by declaring them illegal have failed.

Formed last October, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) is led by the dynastic Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). These longstanding parties of the Pakistani bourgeoisie have been widely discredited by their implementation for the past three decades of International Monetary Fund-dictated pro-market “reforms,” and their support for Washington’s neo-colonial Afghan war and the seven decades-old partnership between the Pakistani military and the Pentagon.

Police officers in riot gear stand guard outside the head office of Election Commission of Pakistan on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

Both parties are now posturing as strong opponents of the right-wing policies of the Khan government. Almost as soon as he assumed office in August 2018, Khan unceremoniously dropped his election campaign rhetoric about building an “Islamic welfare state” in favor of further pro-market reforms demanded by the IMF.

The PDM claims the PTI government is illegitimate because the military rigged the 2018 election to ensure a PTI victory and Khan’s assuming office. At the time, both the PPP and PML-N rejected the election results, but they soon reconciled themselves to sitting on the parliamentary opposition benches. While there was acknowledgment that the military—which has repeatedly staged coups and effectively controls the country’s foreign and national security policies—pulled strings behind the scenes on the PTI’s behalf, there was little to no popular support for the corrupt PML-N and PPP’s challenge to the election outcome.

However, amid rising popular dissatisfaction with the PTI government due to the skyrocketing cost of living, its privatization measures, destruction of jobs, and the paltry support it provided during an inadequate and ill-prepared COVID-19 lockdown, the PDM has been able to gain some popular traction.

From December 2019 to March 2020, prices were rising at a double-digit annual rate, peaking at 14.6 per cent in January. Since then, inflation has hovered between 8 and 10 per cent, making it increasingly difficult for many to put food on the table.

At the IMF’s urging and in the name of reducing the budget deficit, Khan imposed a wage freeze on all government sector workers as part of the budget for the 2020-21 financial year. At the same time the government increased the defense budget by 12 per cent, and to 18 percent of all state expenditure.

In November, Pakistan Steel Mills laid off 4,544 workers as part of the Khan government’s privatization drive. The government’s pledge to the IMF that it will sell off a long list of state-run enterprises has provoked widespread opposition. These include protests this year by Water & Power Development Authority workers against the privatization of the state-run utility and its power distribution entities. Health care workers have also continued to voice their opposition to the government’s plans to privatize the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, the top hospital in Islamabad.

The impact of these economic policies is especially devastating for young workers. In running for office, the PTI not only postured as an alternative to the corrupt parties of Islamabad. It promised it would significantly expand youth employment opportunities.

The Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

Popular anger towards the government has been exacerbated by the ever-worsening socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic domestically and globally.

The official figures show Pakistan with relatively low numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, 555,000 and 11,830 respectively. However, given Pakistan’s ramshackle health care system and teeming slums, and the widespread prevalence of hunger and disease, these figures undoubtedly understate the pandemic’s true impact.