Pakistani Government’s Survival in Question Following Violent Clashes with Protesters

August 31, 2014

Riot police run away from supporters of Tahir ul-Qadri, Sufi cleric and leader of political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) during the Revolution March in Islamabad, August 31, 2014. (Reuters)

Last night Pakistan’s political crisis finally boiled over and clashes between riot police and anti-government protestors turned the capital, Islamabad, into a warzone. The violence and instability of the situation has called the government’s survival into serious question; as the Pakistan Army’s top brass meets today to consider the crisis, fears that Pakistan’s democratic transition has been dealt critical blows appear increasingly justified.

 
The Violence in Islamabad

On the evening of August 30, supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by former cricket star Imran Khan, and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), led by Canada-based firebrand cleric Tahirul Qadri, continued their protracted anti-government protests in front of Pakistan’s Parliament Building inside Islamabad’s government and diplomatic quarter known as the Red Zone. The demonstrations, which began nearly two weeks ago, were initially located in a different part of the city.[1] The government had warned protestors against attempting to breach the heavily-fortified Red Zone and had stationed over 30,000 security personnel to ensure demonstrators did not enter.[2] The PAT and PTI ignored the warnings, and on August 19, protestors advanced on the Red Zone and moved their demonstrations to in front of the parliament building.[3] Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government’s last-minute decision to not engage the protestors prevented a clash from taking place, but protestors were warned that they would not be allowed to advance any further inside the Red Zone or to approach the Prime Minister’s House.[4]

On August 30, following direction from Khan and Qadri to once again move the demonstrations in front of the Prime Minister’s House, PAT and PTI protestors—including women and young children—began advancing deeper into the Red Zone.[5] When some protestors, with the assistance of a mobile crane, began dismantling security barricades around the Presidency, located adjacent to the Prime Minister’s House, police manning the security cordon responded by firing tear gas.[6]

Following that first volley, all hell broke loose and running clashes ensued between protestors and riot police that lasted through the next morning.[7] Protestors fought police with batons, rocks and slingshots, while police responded with baton charges, tear gas and rubber bullets. Over 300 people were wounded by the next morning, including over 30 policemen.[8] At one point, protestors demolished part of the gate surrounding Parliament and poured into its grounds. Their advance was halted by paramilitary and army forces guarding the interior security of the premises, however.[9]

Although the police appear to have restricted themselves to the use of non-lethal weapons only, two protestors succumbed to injuries sustained during the clashes in hospital on August 31.[10] Police have also been criticized for attacking some journalists as well.[11] Khan and Qadri, who had on numerous occasions promised to take the lead in their parties’ advance, remained in their respective bulletproof vehicles and largely stayed out of the fray.[12]

Clashes continued well into the next morning, but as the dust cleared and the fighting briefly paused in the afternoon, Khan and Qadri took the opportunity to make new speeches calling for their supporters to launch protests across the country and to join them in Islamabad’s Red Zone for another night of expected clashes with police.[13] Both also called for criminal cases to be filed against Sharif, his key allies, and the police for initiating the violent clashes, and called for Sharif’s immediate resignation and the holding of fresh elections.[14]

 
Provoking the Government

Once the first clashes took place between police and protestors, the ensuing chaos was both predictable and inevitable. What is still not completely clear is why Khan and Qadri called on their supporters to march further into the Red Zone, knowing the risk that clashes may ensue, and when it appeared that a political breakthrough may have been imminent.

Negotiating teams from the government and the PTI held talks on the evening of August 30 and, rumor has it, were on the cusp of reaching a deal that would satisfy virtually all of the PTI’s demands.[15] The defining features of the deal were the following: an independent judicial commission would investigate all allegations of rigging during the 2013 general election; in place of Khan’s demand that Sharif resign for 30 days in order to keep the commission free of influence, Sharif would go on a month-long enforced “vacation” while a senior minister ran the government in his place.[16]

Later that evening, however, PAT chief Tahirul Qadri announced his decision to advance on the Prime Minister’s House. Although the PAT and PTI protests began separately, they had been coordinating their actions for the past several days.[17] The PTI’s main leadership committee, with a deal with the government close at hand, and reportedly fearing any further advancement would not remain peaceful, decided not to join the PAT on this occasion.[18] When another veteran politician allied with the PTI and with known ties to the army showed up at the meeting and passed Khan an undisclosed “message,” a senior member of Khan’s party, Javed Hashmi, reported Khan as then saying they were obligated to advance.[19] Hashmi, who previously clashed with Khan over Khan’s eagerness to invite the military to mediate in the crisis, walked out of the meeting in protest. Khan later refuted Hashmi’s accusation that he was acting on “outside dictation,” saying he changed his mind after Qadri promised the march forward would be peaceful, and sacked Hashmi from the party.[20]

The resulting march did not remain peaceful, and the rumors of the nearly-complete deal and Hashmi’s later comments strengthen the allegations of several commentators that Khan and Qadri have been receiving direction or at least encouragement from members of Pakistan’s military establishment intent on deepening the crisis and weakening Sharif’s position vis-à-vis the army.[21]

Independent of the military, both Qadri and Khan stood to gain politically from the crisis erupting into violence. While their protests beat expectations in lasting more than two weeks, they did not manage to gather anywhere near the numbers they promised and had to contend with a remarkable closing of ranks among political parties in Parliament in defense of the Prime Minister against what the parties regarded as the PTI and PATs undemocratic and unconstitutional demands.[22] Street violence, police crackdowns on civilian protestors, and an atmosphere of chaos would not only undercut Sharif’s position, but would likely steal back public sympathy that had thus far been with the government and influence some political parties to switch sides. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has already called a day of mourning and asked Sharif to resign.[23] Former President Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), a historically bitter rival of Sharif’s who had nonetheless been supportive him during the political crisis, has condemned the crackdown.”[24]

The Government Opts for Force

Another pertinent but insufficiently answered question about the clashes is why the government chose to engage the protestors. Sharif and the Punjab provincial government led by his brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, have been pilloried for a police crackdown on PAT protestors in Lahore in June that resulted in the deaths of up to 14 protestors.[25] One of the sticking points of a deal with Qadri, which the government eventually (although Qadri claims insufficiently) agreed to, was the filling of a criminal case against the Sharif brothers for the June violence.[26] The government also chose to show restraint when the PAT and PTI first launched a Lahore-to-Islamabad “Long March” on August 14; it allowed the parties space to protest and hold a multi-day sit-in and forbade the police from engaging protestors when they first marched on and invaded the Red Zone on August 19. The government was well aware that violence, which the PAT and PTI appeared on occasion to actively be seeking, would be difficult to control and cost it the sympathy it would need to see through the protests.

One possible answer is that, this time when confronted by PAT and PTI protestors bearing down upon it, the government, in a worsened political situation, blinked. Sharif has a reputation for being ham-handed in moments of crisis and may simply have panicked.

Until a few days ago, the government’s position was fairly strong. Although the protests had not abated, the number of their supporters had diminished greatly and almost all of Parliament came out in support of a resolution expressing solidarity with Sharif and repudiating Khan and Qadri’s demand for his resignation. Soon after, however, reports emerged that the government had sought out the help of Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif (no relation), to play the role of a mediator and guarantor in trying to bring the crisis to an end.[27] Speculation had been rife that Prime Minister Sharif had been crafting a deal with the army by which the army would guarantee support for his continued premiership in exchange for the government ceding control of key policy issues such as foreign policy and security to the army.

Qadri and Khan, who had both fended off numerous calls for negotiations from government and opposition political parties alike, enthusiastically seized the opportunity to hold a dialogue with the army chief.[28] The government appeared to have misstepped, however. Acting in a manner that has come to define Sharif’s governance style and has infuriated allies and opponents alike, Sharif appears not to have discussed his decision to invite the army to participate with anybody beyond a small inner circle of advisers.[29] Members of his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, its allies, and the PPP-led opposition were upset at being left out of the loop after having vociferously supported Sharif and the verbal backlash in Parliament was intense.[30] In a clumsy attempt to repair the damage, Sharif and Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan claimed that Khan and Qadri were the ones who made the request for the army’s involvement to which Sharif magnanimously acceded. Qadri and Khan responded with vitriol, denying Sharif’s version of events.[31] The army, reportedly annoyed at Sharif’s attempts to dissemble regarding the nature of its involvement, came out with an official statement confirming that it had been asked by the government to play a facilitative role.[32] The statement embarrassed Sharif, who appears to have been caught lying in Parliament, and cost him some political sympathy.[33] With the army seeming to take a step back from assisting in resolving the crisis, and the PAT and PTI making the unexpected decision to breach the government’s barricades, the government may have decided in the heat of the moment to rely upon its own agencies to bring the situation to heel. The decision appears to have been the wrong one.

 
Can the Government Survive?

As street clashes continued on into the morning of August 31, and the numbers of wounded steadily climbed, the question being raised by many commentators was: can the government survive this turn of events? Does it maintain the legitimacy to rule after using force against a mob that, although admittedly the provocateur, contained large numbers of women and children?

While a definitive answer to the question will continue to be shaped by events over the coming days, the situation looks grim for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government. At this time, it does not appear as if protestors are engaging in a second night of confrontation with the police, but if violence were to restart, the government would have a very difficult time maintaining support. Without the support of Parliament, Sharif and the PML-N will lose the legitimacy to rule, even though they theoretically have the simple majority of seats necessary to maintain a hold on government. Gen. Sharif called a special meeting of the army’s Corps Commanders in order to discuss the current crisis. The army issued a statement after the meeting condemning the use of force and calling for a political solution to the deadlock.[34] The extent to which every political actor was focused upon the result of that meeting shows the extent to which the army is increasingly being looked to, and relied upon, to provide an exit from the political impasse, however.

The government is being criticized not only for the use of force on August 30, but for allowing the situation to come to a head in the first place.[35] The PTI’s grievances regarding rigging allegations could have been disposed of months ago with the expenditure of very little political capital on the government or PML-N’s part. The PAT would be a fringe movement with no national legitimacy if the government had not used excessive force in cracking down on its protestors in June or then dealt appropriately with complaints of excessive force soon after they took place.[36] Instead, the government allowed a crisis to germinate where two political parties with only a few thousand supporters participated in a 17-day long protest that culminated in Islamabad being turned into a warzone. At almost every step, the PML-N-led government and Sharif have stayed true to their reputation for overconfidence, aloofness, dealing phlegmatically with issues of importance, being unwilling to cede the slightest bit of ground to those they consider their political inferiors, and taking insufficient heed of the army’s willingness to, and astuteness in, wielding political power where it feels its interests are threatened.

If the government strives, and manages, to hang on to power for the remainder of its five-year term, it will exist only in a contemptible, weakened fashion much like the PPP-led government before it. Humbled by a series of crises and put in its place by an army acting to re-establish stability (and its own supremacy), it will no longer be able to wield the moral authority or political force earned by its clean sweep of the 2013 elections. If the government, as seems increasingly likely, chooses to see this crisis through and then call for mid-term elections in the near future, it may win a majority again but will find it difficult to replicate the same measure of success—once again, a weakened PML-N government. Prior to the clashes, if Sharif had declared a snap election, he had better-than-reasonable chances of being returned to power with strong majority and a fresh mandate with which to see off challenges from the PTI, PAT and the army. Today, he likely no longer maintains that ability.

Sharif’s election was supposed to be a milestone: Pakistan’s first democratic transition from one fairly elected government to another. With his strong mandate, a free press, and his extensive experience in dealing with the political machinations of the army, Sharif had the necessary tools to shepherd Pakistan out of its history of revolving door governments. Instead, in the face of army challenges to civilian supremacy and the protestations of political welterweights, Sharif has appeared increasingly out of his depth. The smooth, constitutional transition to a third fairly elected government has been interrupted. Of course, the PTI, PAT, and army must each shoulder blame for acting in an undemocratic manner, but such behavior was to be expected of them. Sharif should have known better.

 
[1] Reza Jan, “Pakistan’s March Madness: The Opposition Attempts to Topple the Government,” CriticalThreats.org, August 14, 2014. Available: http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/jan-pakistans-march-madness-opposition-attempts-topple-government-august-14-2014
[2] Ikram Junaid, “Marchers call Nisar’s bluff,” Dawn, August 20, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1126498
[3] Reza Jan, “Pakistan’s political crisis escalates dangerously,” AEIdeas, August 19, 2014. Available: http://www.aei-ideas.org/2014/08/pakistans-political-crisis-escalates-dangerously/
[4] Reza Jan, “Pakistan’s political crisis boosts the army at the government’s expense,” AEIdeas, August 20, 2014. Available: http://www.aei-ideas.org/2014/08/pakistans-political-crisis-boosts-the-army-at-the-governments-expense/
[5] “Battleground Islamabad: Imran vows to advance as clashes continue,” Dawn, August 30, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128786/qadri-imran-direct-marchers-to-move-towards-pm-house-peacefully
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid
[8] “Battleground Islamabad: Imran vows to advance as clashes continue,” Dawn, August 30, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128786/qadri-imran-direct-marchers-to-move-towards-pm-house-peacefully
“Islamabad protests: We wish to solve this crisis politically, says Khwaja Asif,” Express Tribune, August 31, 2014. Available: http://tribune.com.pk/story/756071/islamabad-sit-in-updates-imran-says-they-will-not-spare-sharif-brothers-for-attacking-unarmed-protesters/
[9] “Battleground Islamabad: Imran vows to advance as clashes continue,” Dawn, August 30, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128786/qadri-imran-direct-marchers-to-move-towards-pm-house-peacefully
Pakistani television coverage of events during August 30-31, 2014.
[10] Salman Masoon, “At Least 3 Protestors Die in Clashes in Pakistan,” New York Times, August 31, 2014. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/01/world/asia/pakistani-unrest.html?partner=rss&emc=rss
[11] “Battleground Islamabad: Imran vows to advance as clashes continue,” Dawn, August 30, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128786/qadri-imran-direct-marchers-to-move-towards-pm-house-peacefully
[12] “Battleground Islamabad: Imran vows to advance as clashes continue,” Dawn, August 30, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128786/qadri-imran-direct-marchers-to-move-towards-pm-house-peacefully
Pakistani television coverage of events during August 30-31, 2014.
[13] “Battleground Islamabad: Imran vows to advance as clashes continue,” Dawn, August 30, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128786/qadri-imran-direct-marchers-to-move-towards-pm-house-peacefully
“Islamabad protests: We wish to solve this crisis politically, says Khwaja Asif,” Express Tribune, August 31, 2014. Available: http://tribune.com.pk/story/756071/islamabad-sit-in-updates-imran-says-they-will-not-spare-sharif-brothers-for-attacking-unarmed-protesters/
Pakistani television coverage of events during August 30-31, 2014.
[14] Ibid
[15] “A disastrous turn of events,” Dawn, August 31, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128894/a-disastrous-turn-of-events
Author’s interview with source in Pakistani government, August 30, 2014.
[16] Ibid
[17] Pakistani television coverage of events during August 30-31, 2014.
[18] “Imran’s move towards PM House prompted by a message: Javed Hashmi,” Dawn, August 31, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1129002/imrans-move-towards-pm-house-prompted-by-a-message-javed-hashmi “Hashmi censures Imran’s decision to move towards PM House,” Express Tribune, August 31, 2014. Available: http://tribune.com.pk/story/756132/hashmi-censures-imrans-decision-to-move-towards-pm-house/
Amir Wasim, “Hashmi leaves sit-in to protest PTI’s joining forces with PAT,” Dawn, August 31, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128991/hashmi-leaves-sit-in-to-protest-ptis-joining-forces-with-pat
“Battleground Islamabad: Imran vows to advance as clashes continue,” Dawn, August 30, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128786/qadri-imran-direct-marchers-to-move-towards-pm-house-peacefully
“Islamabad protests: We wish to solve this crisis politically, says Khwaja Asif,” Express Tribune, August 31, 2014. Available: http://tribune.com.pk/story/756071/islamabad-sit-in-updates-imran-says-they-will-not-spare-sharif-brothers-for-attacking-unarmed-protesters/
Pakistani television coverage of events during August 30-31, 2014.
[19] “Imran’s move towards PM House prompted by a message: Javed Hashmi,” Dawn, August 31, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1129002/imrans-move-towards-pm-house-prompted-by-a-message-javed-hashmi “Hashmi censures Imran’s decision to move towards PM House,” Express Tribune, August 31, 2014. Available: http://tribune.com.pk/story/756132/hashmi-censures-imrans-decision-to-move-towards-pm-house/
Amir Wasim, “Hashmi leaves sit-in to protest PTI’s joining forces with PAT,” Dawn, August 31, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128991/hashmi-leaves-sit-in-to-protest-ptis-joining-forces-with-pat
[20] “Imran’s move towards PM House prompted by a message: Javed Hashmi,” Dawn, August 31, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1129002/imrans-move-towards-pm-house-prompted-by-a-message-javed-hashmi
Amir Wasim, “Hashmi leaves sit-in to protest PTI’s joining forces with PAT,” Dawn, August 31, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128991/hashmi-leaves-sit-in-to-protest-ptis-joining-forces-with-pat
“Battleground Islamabad: Imran vows to advance as clashes continue,” Dawn, August 30, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128786/qadri-imran-direct-marchers-to-move-towards-pm-house-peacefully
[21] “A disastrous turn of events,” Dawn, August 31, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128894/a-disastrous-turn-of-events
Cyril Almeida, “When failure is victory,” Dawn, August 31, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128900/when-failure-is-victory
Pakistani television coverage of events during August 30-31, 2014.
[22] Azam Khan, “MNAs give rousing welcome to Nawaz,” Express Tribune, August 21, 2014. Available: http://tribune.com.pk/story/751577/mnas-give-rousing-welcome-to-nawaz/
[23] “Battleground Islamabad: Imran vows to advance as clashes continue,” Dawn, August 30, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128786/qadri-imran-direct-marchers-to-move-towards-pm-house-peacefully
[24] “Zardari urges govt to allow food for protestors,” Daily Times, September 1, 2014. Available: http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/national/01-Sep-2014/zardari-urges-govt-to-allow-food-for-protesters
[25] Pakistani television coverage of events during August 30-31, 2014.
“Marvin Weinbaum, “How Protests and the Military are Curbing Democracy in Pakistan,” FP, August 12, 2014. Available: http://southasia.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2014/08/12/how_protests_and_the_military_are_diminishing_pakistan_s_democracy
[26] Qamar Zaman, “Qadri rejects FIR registered in Model Town incident,” Express Tribune, August 28, 2014. Available: http://tribune.com.pk/story/754964/qadri-rejects-fir-registered-in-model-town-incident/
[27] Saeed Shah, “Pakistani Leader Sharif Nears Pact With Military,” Wall Street Journal, August 27, 2014. Available: http://online.wsj.com/articles/pakistani-leader-sharif-nears-pact-with-military-1409186231?mod=fox_australian
[28] “COAS Raheel Sharif made ‘mediator’ to end political crisis,”  Dawn, August 29, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128362/nawaz-has-appointed-gen-raheel-sharif-as-mediator-qadri
[29] “COAS Raheel Sharif made ‘mediator’ to end political crisis,”  Dawn, August 29, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128362/nawaz-has-appointed-gen-raheel-sharif-as-mediator-qadri
“Khurshid Shah thunders in Parliament, pledges support to govt,” Dawn, August 28, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128555/khurshid-shah-thunders-in-parliament-pledges-support-to-govt
Khawar Ghumman, “Politicians decry army’s role in politics,” Dawn, August 28, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128517/politicians-decry-armys-role-in-politics
[30] “Khurshid Shah thunders in Parliament, pledges support to govt,” Dawn, August 28, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128555/khurshid-shah-thunders-in-parliament-pledges-support-to-govt
[31] “Khurshid Shah thunders in Parliament, pledges support to govt,” Dawn, August 28, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128555/khurshid-shah-thunders-in-parliament-pledges-support-to-govt
“Did not ask army to mediate: PM Nawaz,” The News, August 29, 2014. Available: http://www.thenews.com.pk/article-158182-PM-Nawaz-says-did-not-ask-army-to-mediate-
“Qadri accuses PM Nawaz of lying,” The News, August 29, 2014. Available: http://www.thenews.com.pk/article-158183-PM-Nawaz-is-lying-about-who-requested-Army-chief-meeting:-Qadri-
[32] “Govt asked by army to play ‘facilitator’ role: ISPR,” Dawn, August 28, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128573/govt-asked-army-to-play-facilitator-says-ispr
[33] Cyril Almeida, “When failure is victory,” Dawn, August 31, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128900/when-failure-is-victory
“A damaging turn of events,” Express Tribune, August 31, 2014. Available: http://tribune.com.pk/story/755847/a-damaging-turn-of-events/
[34] Mateen Haider, “Army chief calls corps commanders meeting,” Dawn, August 31, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1129001/army-chief-calls-corps-commanders-meeting
“Battleground Islamabad: Imran vows to advance as clashes continue,” Dawn, August 30, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128786/qadri-imran-direct-marchers-to-move-towards-pm-house-peacefully
[35] “A disastrous turn of events,” Dawn, August 31, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128894/a-disastrous-turn-of-events
“Game of losers,” Express Tribune, August September 1, 2014. Available: http://tribune.com.pk/story/756221/game-of-losers/
Cyril Almeida, “When failure is victory,” Dawn, August 31, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1128900/when-failure-is-victory
“A damaging turn of events,” Express Tribune, August 31, 2014. Available: http://tribune.com.pk/story/755847/a-damaging-turn-of-events/
[36] Cyril Almeida, “Three, Two, One,” Dawn, August 24, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1127287/three-two-one
Cyril Almeida, “Unfit to lead,” Dawn, August 10, 2014. Available: http://www.dawn.com/news/1124347/unfit-to-lead