Pakistan's March Madness: The Opposition Attempts to Topple the Government
Today, Pakistan celebrates its 68th Independence Day, but it does so with its capital under virtual siege. Policemen and barricades cover almost every major entry and exit point in Islamabad and parts of Lahore in anticipation of anti-government protests that aim to bring down the government. Although events in Pakistan sometimes have a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it feeling to them, today’s protests have been months in the making and have implications for the future of Pakistan’s civil-military relations, democratic development and relations with the U.S. and India.
Thousands of supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) opposition party, led by its charismatic leader, Imran Khan, are partaking in a “long march” from Lahore culminating in a demonstration outside parliament in Islamabad. The PTI aims to force Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign and call fresh national elections only 15 months from when they were last held. Joining the PTI are thousands of supporters from the Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT), a party led by the enigmatic, Canada-based, firebrand preacher Tahirul Qadri, who also seeks to oust what he sees as an irredeemably corrupt government through “revolution” rather than fresh polls.
In true Pakistani fashion, the roots of the current dispute lie, at least in part, in deep, unresolved tensions between the government, led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party elected in May 2013, and the country’s historically dominant military. Sharif came to power in 2013 with a strong majority and a mandate for reform on critical issues like the economy, national energy crisis and relations with its neighbor and nemesis, India.
The army, used to calling the shots in one form or the other, sees Sharif’s irreverent approach towards its traditional concerns, such as those regarding rapprochement with India, as dangerous. It has butted heads with the government repeatedly; it disagreed with Sharif’s inflexible approach to talking to, rather than militarily confronting, the Pakistani Taliban, and has been particularly incensed by Sharif’s determination to prosecute former military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf for treason. Sharif’s government’s support to the news organization Geo TV, that openly accused the military of trying (unsuccessfully) to assassinate its most senior journalist in April 2014, was seen as especial effrontery.
The PTI and PAT have stepped into the conflict looking to gain politically from the worsening civil-military dispute at the PML-N’s expense. Both came out strongly behind the military in the Geo News debacle. The PTI was able to use the incident to revive momentum for its calls to investigate alleged election fraud in four constituencies during the 2013 elections. The PAT used the issue to regain national relevance following its brief but intense moment in the spotlight trying, unsuccessfully, to bring down the last elected government through street agitation in 2013.
The government deserves at least some of the blame for letting fringe opposition demands mushroom into an existential crisis. Sharif fears Khan’s PTI, his main electoral rival in the 2013 polls, to such a degree that he was reluctant to grant it any concessions at all, even though Khan had some legitimate concerns about rigging in a few constituencies and a recount would not have appreciably changed the overall election outcome for the PML-N even if some results were overturned. Instead, Khan has capitalized on Sharif’s aloofness and intransigence, painting him as a tyrant and whipping up street sentiment against Sharif whom Khan accuses of having stolen the election. As Khan’s street clout has grown, his demands have become more maximalist. Now, a major concession offered by Sharif on August 12 to have a Supreme Court-led review of election rigging in the 2013 polls has not animated Khan, who has called for a massive, multi-day march and demonstration to begin in Islamabad on August 14 that he says will not end without at least Sharif’s resignation and the calling of early elections.
The PML-N has been even more oafish with the PAT. Rather than allowing a PAT anti-government protest march to pass uneventfully back in June, the government ordered a police crackdown on protestors in Lahore in which 14 PAT supporters were killed. Lionizing the “martyrdom” of his supporters, Qadri has called for nothing less than a revolution and the wholesale disposal of the current political system. Government forces have clashed repeatedly with the PAT in August, arrested hundreds of its activists, and tried initially to prevent the PAT from carrying out its own August 14 march on Islamabad alongside the PTI’s, even though the government is now allowing both the PTI and PAT relatively greater freedom of movement.
A Boon for the Army
The main benefactor of all the political chaos is, unsurprisingly, the army. While the army is unlikely to intervene directly in the impasse or launch a coup, the protests have exerted immense pressure on a government the army views as uncooperative and that it sees as trying to diminish its traditional political power. The political crisis means the army is no longer the government’s focus. Some commentators allege that the army has been encouraging the opposition parties and trying to build pressure on the government to get it to concede to Gen. Musharraf‘s exile rather than his further prosecution.
At the very least, the government’s tone towards the army has recently changed, going from supporting media anchors bashing alleged army thuggery on the air to apparently relying on the army for its political survival: in July the government invoked a law allowing the army to deploy in the streets to help maintain order, a move many saw as a government attempt to warn off the PTI and PAT from pursuing further street agitation. The symbolism of the move was lost on no one, however. Many commentators speculate that the PML-N is in a similar position to its predecessor Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led government, which on two occasions apparently struck deals with the army to have it mediate and defuse a political crisis in exchange for government docility towards the military.
The PML-N has been terrible at selling the narrative that the street marchers empower the army at the expense of democracy, however. Its political missteps, heavy handed response to the PAT’s previous marches and relatively slow progress in addressing what many people perceived to be its core strengths—fixing the energy crisis and the economy—has robbed it of its voice. Furthermore, the government is likely loath to publicly accuse the army of plotting against it, without hard evidence, at a time when the army is engaged in serious counterterrorism operations in North Waziristan and when the army may be the only power the government can rely upon to save its own skin if the August 14 sit-ins take a turn for the worse. The only major opposition party that has completely disavowed the PTI’s and PAT’s anti-government rhetoric has been the previously-bitten-now-shy PPP.
If the marches and sit-ins commencing today take a turn for the worse, and the government does end up relying on the army to step in and mediate between the political actors, Pakistan’s democratic transition will have suffered an enormous blow. It will have once again shown the enormous degree to which civilians rely on the military just to keep the system running. The army likely does not want to govern directly, and sees Khan and Qadri both as politically uncontrollable wild cards. But it is not averse to using the threat they pose to the PML-N to deepen its political cachet.
The government, in exchange for its survival, will then likely need to trade away significant political capital vis-à-vis the army. This would mean any policies it wants to pursue that might be in the national interest, but contrary to traditional army interests, such as trimming the defense budget, deepening ties with India, prosecuting Gen. Musharraf and taking control of setting foreign policy, would be non-starters for years. The army, with its toxic policies towards Afghanistan and the use of militant proxies at home and abroad, would then continue to be the primary interface for the U.S. in dealing with region.
The jury is still out on whether the PTI, claiming to want greater democratization, but blindly attempting to grasp power extra-ordinarily, is unaware of the dangers it is fomenting or is a willing abettor of the army’s political machine. The time for the PML-N to have deftly handled a political crisis and benefit as a result has long passed. At this point the government’s best hope for surviving the marches with its political clout intact is for the marches to continue peacefully and hopefully wilt in Islamabad’s summer heat.
UPDATE: Read two new posts analyzing rapid developments in the political crisis in Islamabad:
August 18: "Protests in Pakistan enter perilous endgame," AEIdeas.
August 19: "Pakistan’s political crisis escalates dangerously," AEIdeas.