A religious leader has mobilised huge crowds demanding Prime Minister Imran Khan’s resignation.
It’s a procession that has been in the making for months. A rightwing political party has mobilised tens of thousands of people from all over Pakistan for a demonstration in Islamabad.
Maulana Fazalur Rehman, the leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Party of the Scholars of Islam) wants Prime Minister Imran Khan to step down, insisting that last year’s election, which propelled the former cricketer’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to power, were rigged.
The followers of Rehman’s JUI began their long journey in a caravan of hundreds of buses, cars, and bikes from Karachi on October 27.
After crisscrossing dozens of towns and cities, protestors - almost all of them men - reached Islamabad on Thursday where authorities have barricaded roads and called in the army in anticipation of violent protests.
“Regretfully, it’s history repeating itself. The government has only completed a year and we are seeing protesters calling for its removal,” says Dr Iqbal Chawla, Chairman of Punjab University's History department.
“And Imran Khan is partly to be blamed for what’s happening now.”
While transparency in elections is a recurring issue for Pakistan’s fragile democratic system, Khan’s government has gone out of its way to prosecute opposition leaders, he says.
Leaders of the two main opposition parties - Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan Peoples Party - are facing corruption charges.
PML’s Nawaz Sharif, the three-time prime minister, is in jail and Khan’s government faces allegations of victimising opponents.
In recent days, JUI’s leadership has also come under pressure after one of its leaders was arrested for inciting violence while another faces the prospect of losing his citizenship for allegedly being an Afghan.
The Maulana factor
Rehman, 66, has been a permanent fixture in Pakistani politics for decades, lending the support of his vote bank to mainstream political parties to form coalition governments.
His JUI runs dozens of religious schools across the country, something which hands it considerable street power. Its baton-wielding scouts in yellow uniforms are experienced in maintaining discipline in large gatherings of unruly men.
Once an ally of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Rehman has over the years transformed JUI into a moderate religious party.
But Rehman lost the election for his national assembly seat in his stronghold of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to a little-known PTI candidate in last year’s election. Since then, he has been trying to get other political parties onboard to present a challenge to Khan’s government.
Chawla says Pakistan’s economic woes including the rising prices of food and daily-use items have taken the sheen off Khan’s charismatic personality.
“I won’t be shocked if supporters of other political groups and people from different walks of life join this procession. I’m just concerned about if it turns violent.”
In 2014, Khan spearheaded protests against the then-government of Nawaz Sharif that brought life to a standstill in Islamabad for months. It is believed that he received backing from the country's powerful military, which has also been close to Rehman.
It remains unclear how long Rehman wants to keep his followers in Islamabad. Analysts fear any attempt to forcibly evict the protesters could turn into violence.