From demanding lockdowns to undermining them, from venerating protests as the bedrock of democracy to hindering them, Pakistani political parties have made the arduous journey between starkly contradictory policy positions with surprising ease.

With lives liberty and democratic traditions on the line, one is forced to ask at what point does political expediency becomes hypocrisy?

Opposition and the lockdown

By March 20, there were 370 active coronavirus cases in Pakistan – rising steadily. Two people had lost their lives, while the global death toll stood at 9,200.

Faced with the prospect of an uncontrolled pandemic the opposition assailed the government, demanding it immediately shut down the country, pleading with citizens to stay home and protect themselves if their elected leaders would not.

On November 20, there are 48,576 active cases in Pakistan – rising exponentially. 8,025 have lost their lives, and the global death toll stands at a staggering 1,466,901.

The opposition is still assailing the government, but for the complete opposite reason. Opposition leaders are urging their supporters to flout government restriction and congregate in massive numbers to attend their Multan rally, telling people that the government’s health regulations are authoritarian, vowing that their rally will be held “at all costs”.

How did the oppositions stance change in such a short span of time? How can opposition leaders – who gleefully accuse the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) for going back on their word – reconcile their past statements with the current ones?

The answers to these questions do not paint a flattering picture of the opposition’s sincerity. It paints an even worse picture of their commitment to public health and safety; when they needed political pressure on the government, they encouraged people to abandon SOPs.

However the government fares no better.

Government and protests

PTI has had a shifting perspective on protests and the government’s writ over the years. Back in 2014, when the PTI was in the opposition, the party fully utilised an offensive onslaught of protests, rallies and marches against the then PMLN government. Efforts to block people arriving at D-Chowk during the dharna were roundly condemned as authoritarian, and against the fundamental, democratic right to protest.

In power, the PTI has used containers, tear gas, and arrests to hamstring opposition protests with the same zeal as the PML-N.

Talking about the Azadi March, the 2014 march from Lahore to Islamabad that turned into the famous D-chowk dharna, Imran Khan termed it not only “democratic” but “constitutional” as well.

PTI saw protesting as a civil liberty intrinsic to a democracy and even congratulated its workers and the members of the public that joined the protest for exercising their democratic freedom and standing against the corrupt regime of the Sharifs; as he said in a speech on 31st August, “all those people present at the protest have proved that a new Pakistan is being formed.”

Similarly, Imran Khan was vocal against the mass arrest of party workers, police force against protestors and using state machinery to slow-down and restrict people from attending opposition protests. 

When the police and paramilitary Frontier Constabulary arrested dozens of the PTI workers in October 2016, gathered for a youth convention at a local hotel, due to imposition of section 144 in the twin cities, Khan said, “we will observe countrywide protest today (Friday) against government’s shameless and brutal torture and arrest of party activists especially women.”

Furthermore, after the use of force against party activists, Khan also criticised the government, saying everyone must protest against such a government. “Today’s brutal action has stamped the fact that Sharif brothers would go to any extent to save their corrupt regime,” he said. “Now it has become mandatory for every Pakistani to come out and join me in saving the country’s future.”

However, a lot has changed after 2018, PTI now is using pages out of the same playbook as all previous governments, and has dealt with oppositions opposition with the same oppressive strategies.

Before the Gujranwala rally of the PDM, the government arrested party workers in scores and restricted the local leadership’s ability to hold corner meetings. It also used containers to seal off the major roads in the city to decrease the attendance to opposition rally, and finally used the oldest trick in the book by arresting the local organizers of the rally.

PDM, Multan and beyond 

As the Multan rally concludes and the PDM looks towards other cities, with the PTI looking to stop them, the actions of both parties need to be viewed in the context of their past statements.


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