Islamabad is bracing up for a cracking showdown

Islamabad promises to be the most happening capital in the world this week. Such is the breathtaking pace of the lead-up to the 'Azadi (freedom) March' by the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) against a panic-stricken ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) that it is difficult to predict the eventual outcome.

The match that pits PTI's Imran Khan, an iconic cricket World Cup winning captain, against PML-N's Nawaz Sharif, a three-time prime minister, on what is Pakistan's Independence Day has taken the country by storm.

Khan has vowed to lead a 'million-man' march on Islamabad in protest over alleged rigging in last year's general elections, which he says was scripted to bring Sharif's PML-N into power.

The PTI has spent a better part of an year since then to get the poll tribunals, higher courts and the parliament to listen to its grievances but to no avail.

Even though a parliamentary committee led by a close Sharif aide has now been formed by the PML-N government under pressure, it is a measure critics have panned as cosmetic, suggesting it will consume time that the government intends to buy to take the wind out of the PTI march.

The PML-N government declared it was open to the idea of voter verification along with its own complaints just after forming the government last year, but has since baulked, fearing any adverse outcome will strengthen the PTI's claims and may fuel an unstoppable movement to force a re-election down the road.

A report by the widely respected Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), a coalition of 30 non-governmental organizations to observe the general elections and mobilize voters, documented nearly 71,000 irregularities in last year's polls. All mainstream parties have alleged that the vote was rigged and that each of them was at the receiving end!

So will the PML-N government come to regret not opening up only four constituencies Khan demanded as a benchmark for voter verification as part of a poll reforms agenda before hardening his stance this month for Sharif to resign?

In what is a high stake power-game that threatens to spiral out of control if not handled well, Sharif has dug his heels in, inviting all political parties to form a united front to stonewall the PTI's march by playing up fears that it is an attempt to derail democracy.

Sharif has achieved moderate success in his design to isolate Khan, but he or his party is still not out of the woods despite patching up with the powerful military and handing over the federal capital to the troops under the controversial Article 245 that gives them sweeping powers to the extent their actions can't be challenged in court!

Even though the PML-N government has officially attributed handing power to the armed forces to aid the ongoing military operation (which, in fact, is being conducted in North Waziristan against the militants), critics say the move is aimed at stonewalling the PTI's march and perhaps, even pitting them against the military.

The enforcement of the article comes six weeks after the military operation began.

The Sharif government has also planned massive Independence Day festivities — replete with the revival of the long suspended military parade — and unfurling of the largest ever flag.
In a manifestation of the typical resort to use of force by the government of the day, dozens of PTI leaders and activists have been placed in detention and their vehicles, mostly motorcycles, already impounded. Large containers have also been placed along the routes the PTI had hoped to bring the protestors from across the country.

But the Khan-led charge is not the only headache the ruling PML-N has to contend with. Tahirul Qadri, a self-styled cleric with a fanatical following of his own, is also promising an end to the Sharif regime with his own "revolution" soon. His call is premised in finishing a "rotten order" that empowers the rich and consigns the citizenry to being mere spectators.

An attempt to bring Khan and Qadri together on a single point agenda has so far failed because neither wants to play second fiddle. For Khan, the stakes are higher given that he leads the second largest political force in terms of vote, and the third largest in terms of parliamentary strength.

But so telling is the political heat that the PML-N government has foregone the option of trying to dismantle the PTI's government in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province despite having the potential to checkmate its rival over fears such a measure will make "political martyrs" out of the PTI!

Any misstep could trigger an avalanche, making Sharif wary, and therefore watchful. But will that be enough? Watch this space!

The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely his and not of Times of Oman.


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