Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters have been camping outside Islamabad for over a week, waiting for an order from Islamic cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman to march toward Prime Minister Imran Khan's residence in the Pakistani capital.
Rehman, a powerful religious figure and head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) party, claims that Khan came to power through rigged elections. Rehman's party lost to Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) in the July 2018 general elections.
The cleric is backed by Pakistan's major opposition parties, including the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), headed by former President Asif Ali Zardari and his son, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.
Rehman is the head of a powerful right-wing party that regularly contests elections and believes in parliamentary democracy. He was a member of the National Assembly (lower house of parliament) between 1988 and May 2018 and served as leader of the opposition in parliament from 2004 to 2007. In May 2014, former Prime Minister Sharif appointed him as the chairman of the parliament's Kashmir committee.
The cleric also had close ties with another former premier, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated at a public rally in Rawalpindi city in 2007.
Nonetheless, Rehman's politics remain hard-line Islamic, with his party demanding that the country's laws be aligned to Islamic principles.
In an interview with DW, Rehman says that it is high time the country's powerful military relinquish its "support" for PM Khan.
DW: Have you set a deadline for PM Khan's resignation?
Fazlur Rehman: No, we haven’t. But we’ll continue to press for his resignation.
Do you think the military establishment would withdraw its alleged support for Khan as a result of your demonstrations?
The military establishment claims it is impartial. At the same time, it says it backs the government. So they need to clarify their position. Are they supporting Khan or not?
Some political analysts say that your protest is actually against the tenure extension of Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and not against PM Khan. Is it true?
No, our protest is against last year's rigged elections and the incumbent government.
You allege that the military establishment supported Khan in the July 2018 election…
I have no doubt about it. As a result of the poll rigging, the military establishment has become controversial. We don’t want our national institutions to become controversial. We want our country's institutions to be strong. They should not get involved in controversies.
Is the Pakistani military involved in politics?
I like to believe that they don’t want to be controversial. They don’t want that people criticize their role. They want to maintain their national character, and we also want the same.
How can Pakistan ensure free and fair elections in the future?
The military should not play any part in the elections. The ISI [the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency] should also keep its distance. The ISI interfered in the 2018 vote.
You say that Pakistan must uphold the rule of law. Yet, Asia Bibi, the Christian woman who spent many years in jail on blasphemy charges, was released by the country’s Supreme Court, yet you and your party didn’t accept the decision?
We must remember that the European Union, the UK, the US and other countries issued statements in Bibi’s favor. These statements were tantamount to pressuring the government and courts. They have no right to interfere in our internal matters.
Read more: Asia Bibi leaves Pakistan 'for Canada'
Do you think the government is planning to amend the blasphemy laws?
The international community is pressuring Pakistan to change the laws. It is incorrect that these laws are against minority rights. I told the EU that more than 500 blasphemy cases have been registered against Muslims and only 40 to 50 against those from religious minorities in the past years. Then how can you say they are against the country’s minorities? Respect for our Prophet is part of our belief. We cannot compromise on it. We will always defend it.
Critics say that you use religion for political gains. How would you react to this claim?
The country was founded on Islamic principles. Islamic clauses are enshrined in our constitution. I want our constitution to be respected.
The interview was conducted by S. Khan, DW's correspondent, in Islamabad.