Why opposition protests are a turning point in Pakistani politics

"General Qamar Javed Bajwa, you packed up our government, which was working well, and put the nation and the country at the altar of your wishes," former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told his supporters at a massive opposition rally in Gujranwala city on Friday.

"General Bajwa is responsible for rigging the 2018 elections, curbs on the media, abduction of journalists and forcing judges to give decisions of his choice," he added.

It is common for opposition leaders in Pakistan to criticize the incumbent government; it is, however, quite extraordinary that they confront the powerful military, which is considered a "holy cow" in the South Asian country, in such a direct manner.

But Sharif, a three-time former prime minister, who is currently in London for medical treatment, believes that Pakistan's main problem is the military's "unconstitutional" role in politics. Therefore, he is not holding Prime Minister Imran Khan responsible for the multiple crises wracking Pakistan. Instead, Sharif is blaming those who "brought him (Khan) to power."

"Today, our struggle is against those who installed Imran Khan and who manipulated elections to bring an incapable man like him into power and, thus, destroyed the country," Sharif said in an address to last month's opposition conference via a video link.

In Sharif's words, the Pakistani military is now "above the state."

"It is saddening that the situation has escalated to a state above the state. This parallel government illness is the root-cause of our problems," Sharif said.

The tone of other opposition leaders at the Friday demonstration was also anti-military. "I tell you, Imran (Khan) Niazi, you are but a puppet and selected," Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the son of late Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto and chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), said in his speech. "In Karachi, on October 18, we will throw a challenge to the selected and the selectors," he said in a reference to Khan and the military.

Why has Sharif turned against the military?

Last month, nine major opposition parties formed the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) to launch a nationwide protest movement to unseat Prime Minister Khan. The Friday rally in Gujranwala was the first in a series of demonstrations planned to increase pressure on Khan, who came to power in 2018 promising to rid Pakistan of corruption. The parties plan to end the campaign with a march on Islamabad, the capital, in 2021.

But the anti-government campaign has quickly transformed into an anti-military movement.

"It is quite extraordinary in Pakistani politics. The military's continued interference in governance has forced a popular politician from Punjab province – Sharif – to take on a confrontational approach," Arshad Mahmood, an Islamabad-based political analyst, told DW.

"Historically, Punjab was a pro-military province. Most of the military generals and soldiers come from Punjab. So Sharif's challenge to the army generals is a turning point in Pakistani politics," Mahmood added.

Experts say the civilian political class in Pakistan increasingly sees the military as an opponent not only in matters of political governance but also of the economy. "The military is not only involved in politics, it also has huge stakes in Pakistan's economic affairs. To protect these interests, it has captured the state. The situation is so grave that elected representatives have become totally powerless," Mahmood underlined.

Read more: Pakistan: Police file sedition charges against former PM Nawaz Sharif

Nadeem Akhter, a Karachi-based columnist and political commentator, is of the view that Pakistan's politics have radically transformed in the past few years due to changing economic patterns.

"The middle-class population in Pakistan has increased manifold in the past decade. It is now close to 42% of the total population. The same pattern can be seen in Punjab, which is Sharif's political stronghold. Punjab's rural areas have economically prospered due to the infrastructure set up and their connectivity to bigger markets in the province. This constituency and the changing economic dynamics have forced Sharif to assert the civilian authority over the military. This is the requirement of his political constituency," Akhter told DW.

"Sharif, who is a businessman, also understands that Pakistan has to take the path of regional cooperation sooner or later. Inability to do so would be damaging for Pakistan's economy and his business interests. The military establishment is against this policy, hence, the clash between Sharif and the generals," he added.

Waseem Altaf, a political analyst and social media commentator, shares this view. He told DW that Sharif is popular because he completed many development projects during his tenure as prime minister. "When he was ousted from power, the country's annual GDP growth was around 5.8%," Altaf said, adding that it plummeted after Khan came to power.

Read more: Ishaq Dar: Pakistani PM Imran Khan 'responsible for current economic mess'

"The resentment against the military is growing in Pakistan because the generals have captured all state institutions. They installed a totally incompetent government after removing Sharif so that they can control everything," Altaf said.

How will the military react?

The military has denied meddling in politics, but is yet to comment on the opposition's latest allegations.

Ghulam Mustafa, a retired army general and defense analyst, is in favor of a dialogue between the military and the opposition parties but believes that Sharif is not ready for it.

"Nawaz Sharif works in an authoritarian way. He does not want to pay heed to the advice of national security institutions," Mustafa told DW.

"Similarly, the Pakistan People's Party (headed by former president Asif Ali Zardari and his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari) needs to take security matters seriously. Only these steps could lead to reconciliation. The military is in favor of a friendly environment," the general added.

Read more: Amid civilian-military conflict, does Pakistan need a new social contract?

Habib Akram, a Lahore-based analyst, said the army also enjoys public support, so it would be incorrect to say that the conflict is between the people and the military.

"The army controls the mainstream political narrative. Many Pakistanis support the army and consider politicians corrupt," Akram told DW.

Read more: Ex-Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif sentenced to 7 years for corruption

Haroon Janjua, a DW correspondent in Islamabad, is of the view that Sharif's direct confrontation with the military generals is a decisive moment in his political career. "For Sharif, it is a do-or-die situation. We have to see whether he will come out victorious or it will end his political career."

The Friday rally will nonetheless pile pressure on Khan's government, Janjua said. "The government is already blamed for bad governance, rising food inflation and unemployment in the country. The protests will add pressure on Khan as his popularity is already waning," he added.

Analyst Mahmood believes that the military establishment will try to find a middle way to resolve the current political crisis. "I think the generals will reevaluate their support for Khan. Both Sharif and the army will have to concede some demands. Absolute civilian supremacy in Pakistan is still a distant dream, but I think politicians can slowly reclaim their lost space in coming years."