There will probably be fairly frequent and large anti-government protests in Pakistan over the next few months.
This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 15 September 2021.
But these are unlikely to have any major political impact or lead to widespread unrest. After a lull since the spring, the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) has announced plans for a renewed protest campaign, including convoys along major roads. Protests in major cities will probably disrupt traffic, and small scuffles between protesters and police are reasonably likely in both city centres and at entry gates into cities.
Despite a lull in activities in recent months, the PDM remains committed to its goals of ensuring free and fair elections, as well as ousting the current government. But this is unlikely to be enough to challenge the government or push PM Khan out of office. And so parliamentary elections will probably be held as planned in 2023. Still, PDM leaders will probably try to use the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and mounting debt to increasingly talk about instability in the country and increase political pressure on the government.
The PDM is seemingly trying to regain lost political momentum by launching a renewed anti-government protest campaign. Although its leaders announced this campaign two weeks ago, they are yet to provide a full schedule. They have reportedly decided to focus on holding rallies in Punjab, and to a lesser extent in Balochistan and Sindh provinces. Thus far this includes holding a ‘convention’ in Islamabad on 27 September, a rally in Faisalabad on 16 October and a ‘long march’ to Islamabad, with a date yet to be announced.
We doubt that protests will be as disruptive as PDM-led rallies earlier this year, or that they will lead to widespread unrest. From last October until this March, the alliance of opposition parties was able to hold weekly or fortnightly rallies attended by several thousand people that disrupted traffic in cities and blocked off city centres. But a split with a key opposition party, PPP, and recurring Covid-19 waves appear to have weakened the movement, preventing it from mobilising many people until recently.
Nevertheless, given the deteriorating security and economic situation in Pakistan, the movement will probably be able to gather up to several thousand people for its upcoming rallies in major cities such as Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi. And because they plan to use road convoys of cars, trucks and other vehicles for their upcoming rallies, we anticipate disruption to traffic on major roads and highways leading up to cities where protests will take place.
While widespread confrontations between activists and police are unlikely, we assess that there is an even chance for isolated scuffles at entry points to cities or in city centres close to government buildings. This is based on rallies earlier this year in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. During these rallies, police used baton rounds and tear gas to disperse PDM protesters that blocked a highway.
Image: Supporters of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) gather during an anti-government rally in Lahore on 13 December 2020. Photo by Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images.