From small traders eking out an existence in far-flung markets to the young men studying in madrassas, a firebrand Islamist politician is rallying tens of thousands of Pakistanis to descend on Islamabad and topple Imran Khan.
On Thursday, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a veteran mobiliser who heads the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F), will lead the marchers from across Pakistan into the capital.
Mr Rehman, whose party has ties to the Afghanistan and Pakistan Taliban and enjoys widespread support on the streets, is exploiting growing anger with Mr Khan’s government over his handling of an economic crisis.
Food, electricity and gas prices have risen sharply as growth grinds to a nine-year low, bruising the middle class. “The people of Pakistan are fed up with this government,” said Noor Ahmad Kakar, a 45-year-old supporter of Mr Rehman who travelled from the south-west province of Balochistan to Islamabad for the protest. “Inflation has never been higher and people don’t have jobs.”
Mr Rehman, who ran against Mr Khan last year, has the backing of the main opposition parties, which have formed a united front against the prime minister’s populist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. The opposition is demanding that Mr Khan step down from office over the economic slowdown and allegations that the military rigged the election to orchestrate his victory.
How Mr Khan responds to his first mass street protest will be a critical test of his political strength and, more importantly, his relationship with the military. Political turbulence in Pakistan has opened the door to military intervention before, such as in 1999 when Nawaz Sharif was ousted in a coup.
“The march is a challenge for Imran Khan, his position is weakening. His reliance on the military is increasing rather than decreasing,” said Zahid Hussain, a Pakistani journalist and author based in Islamabad.
“What happens next all depends on how the economy does over the next few months,” added Mr Hussain. “If the military is seen as totally behind the failure of Imran Khan, it’s a very ruthless game.”
Mr Khan, a World Cup-winning cricket star who was celebrated in Pakistan as a national hero before his election, is looking increasingly vulnerable. The middle classes are revolting against an aggressive tax drive during a time of slowing growth while Islamabad has been criticised for diplomatic setbacks, which included its failure to win international support against India’s lockdown of Kashmir, the Muslim-majority state.
“The government has a limited capacity to manage a political crisis of this magnitude in conjunction with the economic troubles,” said Arif Rafiq, a Pakistan expert at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think-tank. “Increasingly, the electorate is holding PTI responsible. The honeymoon period is over.”
Mr Khan took power promising to create an Islamic welfare state along with millions of jobs. But a ballooning current account and budget deficits along with dwindling foreign reserves have forced him to introduce harsh austerity measures.
He reached an agreement with the IMF in May for a $6bn bailout that mandated increased tax collection, the end of costly energy subsidies and depreciating the rupee. Pakistan is “moving in the right direction”, said IMF Middle East and central Asia department director Jihad Azour at a briefing this month. The country’s current account deficit has narrowed in the last quarter to $1.5bn, down from $4bn in the same period last year.
Despite a significant devaluation of the rupee, Pakistan’s exports have not rebounded and economic growth is forecast to slow from 5.8 per cent this year to 2.4 per cent in 2020. Inflation has hit double digits.
The middle class is reeling. Living expenses have shot up at the same time as massive lay-offs have been implemented. Reflecting the deepening malaise, September car sales in Pakistan were down 36 per cent and auto manufacturers have stopped production and sent thousands of workers home.
“In the long run, the problem is that this IMF programme is eroding whatever existing productive capacity you have in the economy,” said Asad Sayeed, a Karachi-based economist. “The government’s economic team is fully focused on stabilisation, they really don’t have any ideas for growth.”
As the pressure mounts on Mr Khan, Pakistan media has complained of censorship and intimidation. “It’s worse than the regime of General [Pervez] Musharraf,” said Pakistan journalist Azaz Syed, author of The Secrets of Pakistan’s War On al-Qaeda.
Mr Khan’s office denies any censorship. “The media here is independent compared to the past, there is no victimisation, everything is normal,” said Nadeem Afzal Chan, Mr Khan’s spokesman. He also insisted that Islamabad had “no objections about a critical march” as long as it followed the rule of law.
Mr Chan added that economic hardship was only temporary. “We are in a transition phase,” he explained. “We are facing a crisis but it will be better in a year.”
For Mr Kakar and his fellow protesters, however, a year may be too long. “Imran Khan’s government has destroyed Pakistan,” he said. “We want to save it.”