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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 August 2018

With Imran Khan yet to take office, poll protests start in earnest

Pakistan cricket hero won election but opponents are not lying down over vote

Imran Khan arrives to meet his party's workers in Peshawar, Pakistan, on August 7, 2018. EPA
Imran Khan arrives to meet his party's workers in Peshawar, Pakistan, on August 7, 2018. EPA

An alliance of Pakistan's defeated opposition parties on Wednesday began a campaign of protests against alleged vote-rigging in Imran Khan's general election win.

Around 1,500 protesters and political leaders demonstrated outside the electoral commission in Islamabad to reject Mr Khan's win and call for an investigation over alleged fraud in the poll, even as he prepares to be inaugurated as prime minister next week.

Elsewhere protesters blocked the Peshawar to Islamabad motorway in protest at the election win by the former cricket hero turned politician's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party.

The 11-party protest alliance vowed to form a robust opposition to Mr Khan's government.

The cricket-player turned statesman has yet to announce the date of his swearing in as leader of the 210 million-strong nuclear armed nation, but it is expected on Independence Day, August 14, or soon after.

Pakistan's woeful finances mean Mr Khan will be under pressure to start governing and find money as soon as possible to fix a widening current account deficit and looming debt crisis.

Asad Umar, who is likely to be the nation's new finance minister, said earlier this week the country's economic situation was "dire".

Central bank reserves are down to virtually nothing, while the current account deficit has grown from $2bn-a-year five years ago to $2bn-a-month today.

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"What we were losing in a year, we are now losing in a month. We have done it three months in a row," Mr Umar said.

"However I don't quite agree with the assessment that Pakistan has never faced a more dire situation. Pakistan has been through this and beaten it. The bad thing is we are in bad shape, the good thing is we have been there a few times before."

Leaders of political parties who were defeated in elections say the vote was affected by fraud. EPA 
Leaders of political parties who were defeated in elections say the vote was affected by fraud. EPA 

Pakistan is reported to need up to $12bn and Mr Umar said options include a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, or from allies such as China.

Wealthy overseas Pakistanis may also be courted with government bonds and other investments allowing them to “take a pride in nation building,” he said.

Finances are so bad that a decision on how to raise the money needs to be taken by the end of September, he said.

Against such a bleak economic backdrop, the prospect of political tumult or paralysis worries financial analysts.

Fitch Solutions on Wednesday said the biggest risk for the PTI was “that the opposition parties could unite against the result and stage sit-ins and protests across the country’s major cities”.

Protests “could severely disrupt economic activity and potentially trigger violent clashes”, according to its country report.

Mr Khan's opponents say the country's powerful military tipped the election playing field in his favour. The military denies meddling and a European Union monitoring team concluded the results were largely credible.

Raja Zafarul Haq of the defeated Pakistan Muslim League said the election results did not represent the public's choice.

He told Geo News: "We want to tell the world that the public rejects [these] elections. We are united on this matter."

Ahsan Iqbal, former interior minister, added: “We will not allow anyone to rob masses of their right to rule. We will continue to protest until a leadership representative of masses' will [rules Pakistan].”

A potentially symbolic inauguration on Independence Day comes after Mr Khan said in his victory speech that he wanted to reset ties with India.

Relations between the rival, nuclear-armed neighbours are said to be at one of their lowest ebbs in years, with virtually no diplomatic contact. Shelling and firing along the disputed line of control in Kashmir regularly kills troops and civilians on each side.

Mr Khan's aides at first mooted the idea of inviting his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi to his inauguration, along with celebrities from the worlds of Bollywood and cricket.

But the plan was scrapped to make way for a simple, austere ceremony more befitting a politician who ran on an anti-corruption platform to do away with the country's corrupt VIP culture.

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