The Pretender to Pakistan’s Throne

Imran Khan's populist protest movement is on the verge of taking down Pakistan's dull, dysfunctional government. How did such a lightweight get so far?

Photo by ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

ISLAMABAD — In 1960, president and field marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator, built the city of Islamabad almost from scratch. Pakistan’s original capital, Karachi, was roughly 800 miles away from his headquarters in Rawalpindi, and Ayub Khan — as the story goes — wanted to reduce his commute in order to more easily serve the requirements of both his military office and the presidency of Pakistan. In relatively short order, Rawalpindi had a new twin city and Pakistan had a new capital. Instead of flying from one office to the next, Ayub Khan could now walk, jog, or drive.

That little slice of Pakistania illustrates the most important rule of the decades-long contest between Pakistan’s unruly civilian democrats and its unconstitutional military rulers: When the Army wants something, it gets it.

Since Aug. 14, Islamabad has been in a state of constant uncertainty and insecurity. Politicians opposed to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have been leading a sit-in of thousands of protesters demanding nothing less than the resignation of Sharif — who has been prime minister twice before and deposed in coups both times.

Today in Pakistan, there are two big questions: Is the military attempting to stage-manage Sharif’s third exit? And is his political tormentor, the temperamental former cricket star Imran Khan (unrelated to Ayub Khan), the Army’s choice as his replacement?

Two separate camps are conducting the Islamabad protests against Sharif: Khan leads one, and Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, an anti-Taliban cleric formerly based in Canada, leads the other. The two leaders are a study in contrasts, but they share one explicit objective — to oust Sharif. Pakistani fatigue with the saga has been growing, and on the night of Aug. 28, the Army became explicitly involved as a guarantor of talks between the opposition camps and the government. The announcement of the Army’s role as the adult in the room is nothing new for Pakistan, and though expectations are that the crisis is petering out, protests could continue as long as Sharif stays in power.

Where did this mess begin? The 2013 elections brought Sharif back to power for a third term and saw Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice), emerge as a major force in politics. Khan’s complaints that Sharif stole the election received little attention until Qadri entered the picture. A colorful cleric with a superb network of philanthropic activities and a politically insignificant but deeply committed corps of disciples, Qadri has a history of agitating against democratically elected governments. When Qadri announced his decision to return in June from his adopted home in Canada to Lahore to launch yet another agitation, alarm bells went off for Sharif.

On June 17, things took a tragic turn. Already exercised by the 100 degree-plus Fahrenheit heat and smarting at the way senior leaders within Sharif’s government had spoken of Qadri, supporters of the cleric clashed with police in Lahore’s tony Model Town neighborhood. Fourteen people died, including a teenager and at least two women, with much of the blame for the violence placed squarely on police brutality. The Model Town tragedy galvanized Qadri’s supporters and stripped Sharif of whatever moral high ground he had. The shifting national mood after the affair buoyed the opposition’s spirits, and Khan could smell blood.

In July, Khan announced his decision to march on Islamabad — with the objective of ousting Sharif — on Aug. 14, Pakistan’s Independence Day. On Aug. 10, Qadri announced that he would march on Islamabad as well. The processions to Islamabad received wall-to-wall coverage from Pakistani media, with some questioning whether the size and diversity of the protesters deserved such lavish 24-hour exposure. As it has dragged on across two weeks, the crisis has developed a momentum of its own. Khan has planted himself and several thousand protesters in front of the Pakistani parliament building, insisting that he will leave only when Sharif resigns.

Few, if any Pakistanis, would argue against the substance of Khan’s complaints — that the electoral process needs major reforms and that corruption throttles the economy. Instead, most debate focuses on just why Khan is so confident that he will succeed in dethroning Sharif — despite the prime minister’s nationwide support and Khan’s falling stock.

Khan’s bravado is, on the surface, perplexing. His level of popular support has dropped significantly since the May 2013 election, and his performance since then has been pedestrian, at best. His speeches at these protests have been cavalier, even vulgar: He threatened to send his enemies to the Taliban so that the group could "deal with them," according to the New York Times. He denigrates parliament and the prime minister; in one speech, he proudly proclaimed that the fear of protesters has caused Sharif to "wet his pants." This is hardly the kind of leader whom soldiers from any country would want to call boss — much less the ultraconservative ranks of the Pakistan Army.

For some, this kind of confidence only comes from the knowledge of having the support of Pakistan’s military brass. Could it really be betting the house on Khan?

Probably not. Pakistan’s military faces a hostile India on its eastern border and a dysfunctional peace process in Afghanistan on its northwestern one. In between, it is trying to stamp out the remarkably resilient and potent Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, against which it recently launched a massive operation in the remote Pakistani region of Waziristan. Now is not a good time for the Army to manage a chaotic political transition.

And removing Sharif would probably complicate the country’s fiscal situation. Pakistan is a poor country with an even poorer record of fiscal management. Outside aid is vital to the country — be it from the IMF and World Bank or from friendly nations like the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia. International lenders hate instability and coups, and they have a long-standing man-crush on Sharif and his team because they are the big-business, Barbarians-at-the-Gate-type capitalists who love to privatize things while disproportionately taxing the poor instead of the rich. Khan, on the other hand, is a wild man when it comes to economic policy. Just this week, he instructed Pakistanis living abroad to stop using legal means of sending home remittances and once again start using the hundi system — the preferred cash-mobility solution for terrorists everywhere.

Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, who unsurprisingly is a close relative of Sharif, is surprisingly good at what he does: managing exchange rates, borrowing cheaply, and stamping out dissenting views on the economy. While growth is still sluggish, Dar has convinced lenders that Pakistan is becoming a less risky investment. Bureaucrats from the World Bank and IMF love him because he is an old-school chartered accountant. Sharif loves him because he is family. And though the Army may not love him, they probably like Dar a lot more than they like the prospect of dealing with Khan’s cuckoo ideas about how to get remittances to Pakistani shores.

Many in the armed forces think Sharif is being needlessly vindictive in pursuing legal cases against Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the former chief of army staff who seized power from Sharif in October 1999, imprisoning Sharif and later exiling him to Saudi Arabia. Now Sharif is pursuing a case against Musharraf, who is stuck in Pakistan, unable to leave because of a court injunction related to a treason case against him — though Sharif’s people insist the motivation is rule of law and not revenge.

Additionally, Sharif’s overtures to India, especially to its newly elected Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, may make some of the generals deeply nervous. Sharif accepted Modi’s invitation to his inauguration, and in a break from Pakistani tradition, Sharif did not meet with separatist leaders from Kashmir whom Pakistan supports. If Pakistan and India become normal neighbors, the military’s influence in Pakistan automatically decreases. The hawks clearly won’t go easily.

But the fears of Sharif improving relations with New Delhi too quickly have likely been assuaged by the rank incompetence with which he implements decisions. Even if he wanted to, Sharif cannot move any faster than a bored glacier on a cold day. He is hamstrung by an obsession with surrounding himself with loyal but inept advisors and bureaucrats.

Sharif has severely undermined his own rule. His shambolic treatment of his own party members, to say nothing of the opposition, is legendary — often ministers can’t get meetings for weeks on end. The presence of his family members in government grates all segments of Pakistani society: Dar’s son is married to Sharif’s daughter, Asma Nawaz. Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif is his younger brother; Water and Power Minister Chaudhry Abid Sher Ali is his nephew, as is prominent parliamentarian Muhammad Hamza Shahbaz Sharif. If only his strategic vision for the country were as consistent as his nepotism.

On the other hand, the best thing Sharif has going for him is the quality of his competition. Pakistan with Khan at the helm would be a disaster of epic proportions — and that’s even with the country’s extremely high tolerance for shambolic leadership.

Khan may be the world’s oldest teenager, with a captive national audience. He thumbs his nose at political niceties and employs an invective that dumbs down the discourse. Like Justin Bieber, Khan focuses on electrifying the urban youth who genuinely believe him to be a messianic solution to the disenchantment they feel about their country. And Khan’s understanding of Pakistan’s problems is probably only slightly more sophisticated than Bieber’s. Khan does not have the policy chops to fix what ails Pakistan: The crux of his efforts during these few weeks has been that he, not Sharif, should be prime minister.

Sharif is a known entity and one easy to tame. Khan is wild and unpredictable. He proudly calls his supporters junoonis — or "crazies." The military might enjoy the troubles Khan gives the prime minister, but it is unlikely to tie its institutional fortunes to unstable and irresponsible political actors like Khan. Pakistani democracy under Sharif will continue to muddle along as it has in the past. Pakistan optimists will be disappointed, because this crisis is unquestionably a setback for democrats. But things could be worse. For now, the most Khan is likely to achieve in challenging Sharif is further strengthening the military’s already strong hold on key decisions guiding the country’s future.

As Americans watch in horror as Syria, Libya, and Iraq come apart, perhaps they will warm to the idea of a Pakistan managed by its highly disciplined and professional armed forces. That would be exactly the wrong conclusion to draw from the political chaos in Pakistan. Now more than ever, Pakistan needs the rest of the world to reiterate its strong support for democracy.

Mosharraf Zaidi is Senior Fellow at Tabadlab, a policy think tank in Islamabad

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