The South Asia Channel

Why Street Protests Work in Pakistan

Why Street Protests Work in Pakistan

Pakistan has a long history of street protests. One puzzle worth contemplating at this moment, when the fate of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government hangs in the balance, is: What makes Pakistan’s street demonstrations such a potent political tool, decade after decade?

Back in 2007, I recall conversations with American and Pakistani officials who feared the potential consequences of growing street demonstrations. Having dismissed the chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, President Pervez Musharraf lacked an effective response to the backlash of protests led by thousands of black-clad lawyers, whose bar associations galvanized national political opposition. At its root, the army-led government lacked popular, electoral legitimacy. Street protests, especially in the face of military power, represented an extra-constitutional means of protest when normal democratic avenues were closed.

The dynamic was not unlike what we have witnessed in repressive, authoritarian systems elsewhere in the world. When public anger and frustration reached a tipping point and protests grew to the tens of thousands without an end in sight, the Musharraf regime was no longer convinced of its ability to shut them down without sparking an even fiercer backlash. Perhaps a more ruthless and powerful regime — one that faced a less mobilized public — might have taken the Tiananmen path. Instead, Musharraf, and the institutional army that backed him, blinked. Musharraf resigned from his position as army chief and was forced from the presidency the next summer.

Next came President Asif Ali Zardari and his Pakistan People’s Party government. Like Prime Minister Sharif has done this week, Zardari sought protection through the physical barricades of shipping containers. Like Sharif, he eventually concluded that his security — and the continuance of his government — rested in the hands of the army chief. And as Sharif may come to find in the weeks and months to come (assuming he rides out the protest storm), such vulnerability is debilitating. Hemmed in by the army’s preferences, priorities, and prerogatives, Zardari’s government eventually found that it had no room to maneuver on issues of supreme national consequence, from relations with India to the share of the national budget allocated for guns rather than butter. Regardless of how and why the latest anti-Sharif protest has taken shape, smart commentators conclude that the army is likely to emerge with an upper hand, and the civilian government cut to size, if not dismissed outright.

By rights, however, Sharif (and Zardari before him) should not face such a high deficit of popular legitimacy as the one that loomed over Musharraf’s tenure. Whatever the flaws of national elections in 2008 and 2013, they were better than what came before, or at least no worse. It is hard to accept that the motivating energy behind the latest round of protests is truly a consequence of voting irregularities. No, today’s opposition leaders Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri are opportunistically latching on to whatever charges can be leveled against Prime Minister Sharif and company. Vote rigging, like corruption, is a perennially effective club to wield against most Pakistani politicians and their parties.

Part of Sharif’s present vulnerability to popular protests can be explained by his own policy missteps that have dissipated enthusiasm for his rule. His dealings with the army, for instance, have been rife with tensions over the Musharraf case and the timing of negotiations and military operations against the TTP. In addition, although Pakistan’s economy is no worse off than it was before Sharif assumed office (and by many measures, it is probably stronger), the common Pakistani has seen little material benefit. To be fair, even the best schemes for new power plants and Chinese-financed infrastructure cannot be realized overnight, but decades of unfulfilled promises by Pakistani politicians have jaded the public. The summertime heat and persistent power outages undercut Sharif’s appeal as a can-do businessman, his calling card in the last election.

Yet lots of democracies face setbacks; the anti-incumbent theme of "throwing the bums out" is a universal rallying cry. In countries where democratic institutions are firmly entrenched, however, opposition parties work through parliamentary and electoral systems to accomplish those ends. It is primarily in democratic systems where institutions are weak and ineffective that unconventional forms of political participation, like street protests, are the norm. At least, this is the principal finding of an insightful political analysis comparing democratic states across Latin America by the Inter-American Development Bank in 2009.

By this logic, Nawaz Sharif’s main failing — the one that makes him most vulnerable to street protest today — is his lack of investment in the institutionalization of democratic politics. That deficit is indeed glaring. Sharif’s critics are right to chastise his do-nothing parliament and hyper-centralization of political authority in the hands of a tiny group of cronies.

The lesson, in the end, is a simple one. Until Pakistan’s leaders invest in institutions of democratic governance, starting with the parliament, street protests will be the bane of ruling governments and the first resort of opposition parties. Until then, what is the best antidote for Nawaz Sharif and his successors? Govern through the parliament and dare your opponents to do the same.

Daniel Markey is a senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad.