Pakistan’s former prime minsiter Nawaz Sharif has accused the country’s influential army chief of overthrowing him in 2017, escalating political pressure on Imran Khan’s government and the military.
His speech was broadcast to thousands of people in Gujranwala, a city in the province of Punjab, at the first of a series of nationwide rallies being held by a coalition of opposition parties.
“General Qamar Javed Bajwa, you packed up our government which was working well, and put the nation and the country at the alter of your wishes,” Mr Sharif said via a video-link from London, where he is on medical bail while serving a seven-year sentence for corruption in Pakistan.
The former prime minster accused the army chief of exerting pressure on the judiciary and orchestrating Imran Khan’s rise to power in 2018. Pakistan analysts said he had broken an unspoken rule that the military’s influence on Islamabad should not be publicly criticised,
Pakistan’s powerful military has come under scrutiny over its role in Mr Khan’s administration, including the strategically important $62bn Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.
Mr Sharif’s attack followed claims from his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party that he was removed by the Supreme Court in 2017 over a corruption scandal.
The corruption allegations stemmed from documents leaked by Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca, which revealed controversial information about Mr Sharif’s family, including ownership of luxury apartments overlooking London’s Hyde Park.
In 2018, Mr Sharif was convicted on unrelated corruption charges and sentenced to seven years in prison. A year later he went to London for medical treatment.
Mr Sharif is exploiting discontent with Islamabad to stage a political comeback by launching the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of 11 political parties against Mr Khan’s government.
The protests are taking place against a backdrop of slow economic growth, high inflation and rising unemployment.
While Pakistan has emerged relatively unscathed from the coronavirus pandemic compared to neighbouring India, the country has billions of dollars in debt-service payments due over the next year to bilateral lenders and other creditors.
The IMF forecasts Pakistan’s growth will be 1 per cent in 2021.
“This is a very important moment in Pakistan’s political history. Imran Khan has been in power for two years but ordinary Pakistanis are finding themselves increasingly squeezed,” said Ghazi Salahuddin, a national affairs columnist for The News, a newspaper in Pakistan.
“For Nawaz Sharif, PDM and its demands present an excellent opportunity to step up his agitation.”
The rally on Friday took place on key political turf for Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz. Maryam, his daughter, and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party and son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, also spoke at the event.
Five more protests are scheduled to take place before the end of the year.