The 2013 general elections of Pakistan were faced with serious proof of electoral rigging, judicial intervention and political interference in not only the elections process itself (voter registration, eligibility and results) but also, the National Database and Registration Authority’s fairness evaluation process.
Organized by Imran Khan and his political party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, Azadi (freedom) march was a four month long act of civil disobedience against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the alleged electoral rigging of the 2013 general elections. It began on August 12, 2014, Pakistani Independence Day and was called to an end on December 17 2014 upon Imran Khan’s announcement that the nation needed unity and security after the terrorist attack on Army Public School in Peshawar. The movement consisted of different acts of civil disobedience, protest, sit-ins and inter-city marches and lasted an unprecedented 126 days. The Azadi March itself drew an estimated million participants. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri’s political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek offered to echo the motion against the PM Nawaz Sharif by planning a parallel Inqilab (revolution) March at the same time. Imran Khan noted that the primary goals of the Azadi March were to contest the legitimacy of the current government (corruption, electoral rigging etc.). He demanded:
- Resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif from national and provincial positions,
- Electoral reform,
- End to corruption and the luxurious lifestyles of political leaders
- An immediate election
After many dharnas (non-violent protests) and jalsas (demonstrations), the march began in Lahore and ended in Islamabad as both protests, staged a sit-in in front of Parliament for 17 days until Aug 31.
Originating Entities and Funding
The political party Tehreek-e-Insaf, Pakistan Movement for Justice, was founded in 1996 by Imran Khan, former national cricket captain.The party currently is the official opposition to the national government, and in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on a provincial level. PTI holds about 10% of National Assembly seats and leads a coalition government in Peshawar, KPK. The party aspires to realize an Islamic democracy in Pakistan which honours freedoms, human rights, toleration and social welfare. The political party Pakistani Awami Tehreek (PAT), Pakistan People’s Movement was founded by Canada-based cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, who returned from exile during Khan’s Azadi campaign to lead a parallel march. The PAT joined the march to protest the unjust, unwarranted killings in an earlier Model Town PAT protest by Punjab police officers. Upon Gen. Raheel Sharif’s announcement of the terrorist attack against Army Public School, PAT ended its march after 70 days in October 2015. Funding for both marches and campaign was through the general public and through private donors and party funds.
Both protests were open to the general public, women, persons with disability and students from all classes and backgrounds. Individuals participated in desperation for political change, fair and accountable voting practices, and democracy. Mostly, individuals participated to make a serious claim for the resignation of Nawaz Sharif as a symbolic shift in Pakistani politics from corruption, greed and blackmailing to democratic governance.
The particular method of a dharna, used throughout the march is a non-violent sit-in protest, which may include a fast undertaken at the door of an offender such as those conducted by Qazi Hussain Ahmed and Jamat e Islami Pakistan in 1993.
Deliberation and Decisions
Prior to the Azadi March in August 2015, Khan and PTI organized 4 jalsas(demonstrations) from May to July 2015 in Islamabad, Faislabad, Sialkot and Bahawalpur. Qadri confirmed a PTI-PAT coalition in protest, yet separation in political agendas, on August 10.
On August 14, 2015, local chapters of PTI and PAT made the journey, on foot, by bike, by bus, to the Nation’s capital, Islamabad. With terrorist threats and the legacy of Bhutto’s assassination, leaders travelled in secured containers. 3 hours into their trek, the government began to block major roads and path with massive containers. On the first day, the Governor of Punjab noted the protestors can travel to Zero Point, but cannot, under any circumstance enter the Red Zone. 6 hours into the protest, the Lahore High Court with a three-member full bench released a nine page order calling the movement’s demands as unconsitutitional. Meanwhile, in Islamabad reports of three terrorists entering the city led the government to declare a state of high alert in the entire city. Throughout the entire journey and sit-in, Khan continuously holds speeches and reminds his followers to remain non-violent and peaceful, and only resist if he is arrested. In his first speech at 7pm in the evening, Khan declares the dharna and march’s aims and his requests for Nawaz Sharif’s resignation and announced protests as a democratic right. He also called for the Election Commission to resign before his arrival in Islamabad and that, electoral rigging is unconstitutional. The end of the first day of the protest trek leaves PTI protesters still in Lahore.Azadi march arrived in Islamabad at Zero Point on August 16 with may clashes with PML-N workers and protestors along the way. The PTI protestors were pelted by stones by Nawaz Sharif supporters. Upon arrival, Imran Khan, KPK Chief Minister and other political party workers and leaders gave speeches. After a night of heavy rain, Khan left to sleep at his Bani Gala residence due to health concerns, despite assuring protestors he would stay the night, in solidarity with 18 protestors who died in the struggle due to the rain. The next morning, Khan demanded the resignation of Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shahbaz Sharif as Chief Minister of Punjab.
On his August 17 speech, Khan called for mass civil disobedience his followers, to stop paying utility bills and taxes. This lead Chief Interior of Pakistan, Chaudhry nisar to announce a goodwill gesture on behalf of the government to create two separate committees to negotiate with PTI and PAT. On August 18, the Lahore High Court filed a petition against the marches and Khan’s call for civil disobedience as a threat to democracy to the Supreme Court. Also on this day, PTI Vice Presidence Shah Mahmood Qureshi announced that all PTI lawmaker and national assembly members have resigned and that party has withdrawed from the Punjab and Sindh assemblies as well. The next morning, 46 KPK assembly’s opposition members presented a no-confidence motion against Khan and Pervez Khattak fearing the dissolution of the KP assembly. After announcing that the government will recount 20 constituencies for electoral rigging, the Chief Interior Minister noted that three levels of security will be implemented in the following days: policy, rangers and paramilitary forces and finally, the army. The government hesitated to use force against protestors due to the prominent presence of women and children. On August 23, protestors block major entrances to supreme court and parliament buildings denying judges and the Sharif government exits. On August 28, Khan meets with General Raheel Sharif and Qadri, in which military provides political advise and acts as a facilitator.
August 30 onwards in the Azadi March saw thousands of arrests and violent clashes between all protests from PTI, PML-N, PAT and the police
In March 2015, to ensure that PTI protests do not threaten the success of the country’s military operations, PML-N signed an agreement, a Memorandum of Understanding, with PTI, and other major political parties like People’s Party of Pakistan and Balochistan National Party. The agreement, shared publicly in Pakistan Today, promises a three-member judicial commission to be formed under presidential ordinance within 45 days of its first sitting. The agreement notes that if electoral rigging is proven across the country, the prime minister will dissolve the national and provincial assemblies, as noted in the constitution and a caretaker government would be set up in consultation with the leader of the opposition, followed by elections. The PM will appoint a special investigations team, in consultation with the opposition for this task. The protests grew violent with many clashes between media, police and protestors, and multiples cases of police brutality, with at least 33 protestors killed, 113 injured and 3000 arrests. Imran Khan also demanded protestors and participants to stop paying utility bills and taxes as an act of mass civil disobedience. Other leading political parties such as Peoples Party of Pakistan sided with the PML-N and Nawaz Sharif noting that Khan’s tactics were undemocratic and unconstitutional and jeopardized the security situation of Pakistan, with operation Zarb-e-Azb still active and fears of a coup by the military.
Analysis and Criticism
From serious allegations of excluding religious minorities in the movement, to harassment against women protestors, to economic losses to the country, to internal critiques from PTI members, the mass civil disobedience movement had many flaws. There were also many critiques of Imran Khan’s behaviour as a political leader, as egotistic, non-democratic and power-hungry as many citizens voiced concerns over his populist rhetoric as taking advantage of the country’s poor and desperation. His demands to the government changed with his moods, as seen in the changing declarations and revocation of 48 hour deadlines to the government to respond to his protest requests. The Sharif government’s response to the protest was consistent, with him refusing to initiate violent crackdown of protests. Other consequences of the movement included school closures, extreme levels of littering at protest locations. What was most noteworthy of this movement was its reach in numbers, and articulation of specific claims against corruption and electoral rigging, paired with demands for specific electoral reforms and political actions.