Thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets on Sunday to protest Imran Khan’s government, defying official advice not to gather during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The protest in Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city, came as a coalition of 11 parties called on Mr Khan to step down and hold new parliamentary elections, just two years after the former cricket star took power.
Protesters, mostly low- and middle-income Pakistanis, rallied behind the opposition’s call amid growing anger over high inflation and a poor economic outlook under Khan’s leadership. .
“There was a time when I could pay for food, rent, electricity and gas for a day’s work,” said Arif Mehmood, a taxi driver from Islamabad. “Now what I earn in a day mostly goes into food.”
The movement was stimulated by the support of Nawaz sharif, the former prime minister, who was impeached by a verdict of the Supreme Court in 2017 for corruption. Mr Sharif, who has been in London since the end of last year for medical treatment, accused General Qamar Javed Bajwa, chief of the Pakistani army, of influencing the 2018 polls.
“No army can fight its own people,” Sharif said in a video message broadcast from London and played at the rally on Sunday.
“A freedom was what we won in 1947 [the creation of Pakistan]. Now is the time to regain our freedom, ”he said,“ I urge young people to leave their homes [for the cause of democracy]”.
Opposition leaders have also threatened to resign from parliament en masse and organize a march to Islamabad next month with the aim of paralyzing the Pakistani capital.
Mr. Khan offered to negotiate with the opposition but refused to drop corruption charges against former leaders, including Mr. Sharif. “Having never worked a single day in their life, their shahi [royal] lifestyles depend directly on safeguarding the ill-gotten and illegally acquired wealth of their families by plundering and impoverishing the nation ”, he[ingthenation”he[ingthenation”hewritten on twitter last month.
Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the daughter of Mr. Sharif, who heads her father’s Pakistani Muslim League party, called the rally “decisive” in a TV commercial aired ahead of the protest.
“You must decide to either seize your rights or continue living under the worst government. You will have to speak out against inflation, rising food prices and economic disruption, ”she said.
The pandemic has put pressure on a fragile economy. Disbursements under a IMF’s $ 6 billion loan program stalled after Mr Khan refused to agree to other harsh measures, including taxes, energy tariffs and higher interest rates.
“As long as the political momentum continues to grow against the government, it will be difficult for the prime minister to respond to IMF demands,” said Sakib Sherani, a former finance ministry adviser.
Separately, a government minister with first-hand knowledge of the situation said China had agreed to provide new loans to help repay loans to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia pledged $ 6.2 billion to Pakistan over three years, including $ 3 billion in cash and a $ 3.2 billion oil swap facility, just after Khan took office in 2018.
But Riyadh asked Islamabad to repay $ 1 billion and froze the oil credit facility in July in the midst of a deepening diplomatic dispute. China stepped in to help Pakistan with the repayment.
Saudi Arabia requested an additional $ 2 billion in early December, according to government officials, who said Beijing would loan the money to Islamabad to make the payment.