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Protests in Pakistan: Setting Dangerous Precedent?

Negotiations between protest leaders calling for the resignation of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government show no sign of resolution. This time the deadlock is over the definition of ‘electoral rigging’.

SHUJA MALIKShuja Malik profile picture
ASSOCIATE EDITOR, BOLOGNA BUREAU

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Negotiations between protest leaders calling for the resignation of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government show no sign of resolution. This time the deadlock is over the definition of ‘electoral rigging’. The Pakistani political landscape has been marred by a crisis since mid-August – a crisis that many say should not be a crisis at all.

Former cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan’s third largest political party electorally, has been staging protests in front of the Pakistani parliament in Islamabad against alleged rigging in the 2013 general elections in which Sharif’s party won by a landslide. Their demands predominantly focus on electoral reforms and the restructuring of the election commission. The protesters want the PM to step down.

Protesting alongside Khan’s party is the Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT). Religious activist-turned-politician Tahir ul Qadri runs PAT and demands the dissolution of the national assembly and the arrest of the Prime Minister and his brother over the killing of 14 political workers in July.

Why should this not be a crisis? Some analysts believe the ‘crisis’ has stemmed from the heavy-handed governance style of the Sharif government, their incompetence or alleged collusion in prevalent corruption in society, and the resultant mass discontent. The trigger is the killing of 14 protesters, allegedly by the police in Lahore.

On the other hand, a strong narrative points to the historically dominant “deep state” being the puppet masters – a euphemism for the army being the primary drivers, sometimes intervening in politics through coups and others times through plots behind the scene. According to this point of view, tensions between the Nawaz government and certain elements of the security establishment have led to what is the new mode of operation in Pakistan:  a “soft coup”. Among the lines of fracture existing between the government and the security establishment are the prosecution of former army chief and President Pervez Musharraf on treason charges, the lack of political ownership of the on-going counterinsurgency campaign in the tribal regions and a turf war over foreign-policy decision-making processes (particularly Pakistan’s relationship with India and Afghanistan) .

Analysts believe elements close to the security establishment are using the dissenting parties as pawns in their fight against the government. But many believe that even the “script writers” — underestimating protest leaders’ ability to bring out so many people on the streets and failing to anticipate that parliament would put its weight behind the prime minister — did not expect this crisis to drag out for as long as it has.

Even so, the government has come out of the ongoing crisis much weakened. Imran Khan continues to hold his ground, looking primarily towards public perception to guide him through. A considerable amount of political wisdom has been spent to provide him with a respectable way out of the inflexible positions he has insisted upon since the beginning.

In the past, tensions between Nawaz Sharif and the military led to the 1999 coup, bringing General Pervez Musharraf to power. But given today’s multitude of predicaments that exist in Pakistan, from the faltering economy, the unstable security situation in the country, activist media and a severe energy shortage, the military is not in a position to overtly displace the democratically elected Nawaz right off the bat.

Moreover, in the most unusual and democratic of ways, most political forces in the country are united against the interventionism of the deep state. Interestingly, the military has issued numerous statements denying any involvement in the political crisis. Yet in those statements the military’s media wing has recommended a peaceful resolution to the political standoff rather than emphasising the authority of the government to which it is supposed to report. By being ‘neutral’, the military may have added legitimacy to a minute fraction of voters protesting in Islamabad.

This crisis illuminates the fragility of the democratic evolution in Pakistan. Election year 2008 saw the first transition between two democratically elected governments in Pakistan’s 67-year history. Political liberals in Pakistan are reluctantly siding with Nawaz Sharif, and for all their dislike of the “fascist-like” Nawaz Sharif, they would much rather side with a flawed democracy than a well-meaning dictatorship. On the other hand, the mass discontent over the tremendous lack of service delivery of governments in Pakistan threatens the process altogether and appeals to the consciousness of the public.

Can a group of protesters bring the government of a nuclear-armed state of 180 million people to a grinding halt? What message does this send to terrorist organisations who have pan-Islamic aspirations and do not recognize the legitimacy of the democratic process? If this government falls in response to this crisis, it will set a dangerous precedent.

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