Islamabad, Pakistan – Thousands of opposition supporters have rallied in major cities across Pakistan to mark a “black day” of protests against Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, as the country’s opposition parties step up efforts to mobilise demonstrations against his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.
Rallies were held in Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore, Quetta and the capital, Islamabad on Thursday, addressed primarily by leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) political parties.
“If this fake government, which stole votes to come into power, to give it its final shove, if … we have to march to Islamabad against them, will Balochistan join us?” asked PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz at a rally of thousands in the southwestern city of Quetta.
Nawaz is the daughter of three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was dismissed from office by the Supreme Court in 2017 and convicted for corruption a year later.
Nawaz herself was also convicted in a related corruption case, but her sentence was suspended pending the hearing of her appeal.
Since last year, Nawaz and her party have led a series of public protests, alleging vote-rigging in the 2018 polls that saw Khan sweep to power. Thursday marked exactly a year since the polls took place.
Since taking office, Khan’s PTI has led an anti-corruption drive, arresting several high-profile members of the opposition, including Nawaz Sharif, his brother Shehbaz, former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and others.
Other opposition parties, too, have seen arrests, with Pakistan People’s Party chief and former President Asif Ali Zardari also currently jailed on corruption charges.
The opposition alleges that the anti-corruption drive has been selectively launched to target political opposition. Khan’s PTI says they are cleaning up Pakistan’s political system.
“We have to transform all institutions which had been destroyed by thieves who only want to loot Pakistan,” Khan said earlier on Thursday, addressing supporters on his return to the country after a three-day visit to the United States.
Some of the opposition protests were covered live by Pakistan’s domestic news television channels, but PML-N leader Nawaz’s demonstration was notably blacked out, following a federal cabinet order earlier this month to ban coverage of opposition political leaders who are under investigation for corruption.
Rights groups have warned of “brazen censorship” taking place in Pakistan, specifically of coverage critical of the ruling party or of opposition events.
In Lahore, the country’s second city, the PML-N’s Shehbaz Sharif was to address a crowd of PML-N supporters, while thousands had gathered earlier in the northwestern city of Peshawar for another protest there.
In the capital, the demonstration on Thursday appeared to be sparsely attended, with several hundred supporters of the PML-N and JUI-F, a religious right-wing party, gathering outside the city’s press club to register their protest.
“The elections were not fair, and Imran Khan was imposed upon us,” said Farzana Kausar, 40, a PML-N worker. “We don’t accept it.”