Pakistan’s Biggest Loser

On Saturday, street protests germinating from simultaneous marches led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party leader) and Canadian religious cleric, Tahir-ul-Qadri (Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) leader) that have laid siege to Pakistan’s capital for the last two weeks turned violent. Islamabad had been relatively peaceful up to this point, but close to 25,000 ...

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

On Saturday, street protests germinating from simultaneous marches led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party leader) and Canadian religious cleric, Tahir-ul-Qadri (Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) leader) that have laid siege to Pakistan's capital for the last two weeks turned violent. Islamabad had been relatively peaceful up to this point, but close to 25,000 protestors, wearing gas masks and armed with rocks, sticks, and marbles to hurl at the security forces breached the Parliament (PM) House perimeter and charged toward sensitive installations in the Red Zone which houses the Presidency, the Parliament, government offices and diplomatic missions. While attempting to remove barricades near the PM House, protestors were met with a police contingent, tear gas, and rubber bullets. The two leaders of the protests, Khan and Qadri appeared to remain inside their bullet-proof containers while sporadic clashes erupted around them. Close to 595 people, including journalists, policemen, women, and children have been injured, according to reports.

On Saturday, street protests germinating from simultaneous marches led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party leader) and Canadian religious cleric, Tahir-ul-Qadri (Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) leader) that have laid siege to Pakistan’s capital for the last two weeks turned violent. Islamabad had been relatively peaceful up to this point, but close to 25,000 protestors, wearing gas masks and armed with rocks, sticks, and marbles to hurl at the security forces breached the Parliament (PM) House perimeter and charged toward sensitive installations in the Red Zone which houses the Presidency, the Parliament, government offices and diplomatic missions. While attempting to remove barricades near the PM House, protestors were met with a police contingent, tear gas, and rubber bullets. The two leaders of the protests, Khan and Qadri appeared to remain inside their bullet-proof containers while sporadic clashes erupted around them. Close to 595 people, including journalists, policemen, women, and children have been injured, according to reports.

Without any concrete evidence, Khan has claimed that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who won a simple majority in the National Assembly and formed the government without having to enter a coalition, engaged in widespread rigging in last year’s elections. Khan has called for the prime minister’s resignation and a new government. Qadri, who demands a political revolution and a technocratic government that can draft a new constitution, has also called for the PM’s resignation.

With clashes erupting and the country at the brink of a military intervention, there is much blame to go around.

Though Sharif has been criticized for his severe mishandling of the crisis, it is Khan who has faced the wrath of analysts and observers for his confrontational stance. Khan’s party currently forms the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) Province, which is beset with challenges and has failed to deliver on the election promises of ushering in development and eradicating militancy. Regardless of his own political failures, what Khan is protesting against is not entirely irrational. Despite the fact that his rigid demand calling for the resignation of the prime minister has not waned, he has drawn attention to corruption and bad governance during Sharif’s first year, as premature as it may be. However, his execution is deplorable and one that has drawn sharp criticism from all sides. In a desperate bid for Islamabad to become the next Tahrir square, Khan has encouraged a culture of street protests. As witnessed though recent clashes, Khan has drawn supporters (including women and children) to the streets. Certainly realizing that mobs cannot be controlled and ultimately grow violent and desperate within a short span of time, Khan has undoubtedly lost control. The environment in Pakistan is now conducive for any political actor to encourage street protests over parliamentary procedures to achieve their goal, regardless of its legitimacy.

The government, having disregarded PTI’s concerns before the protests began, now finds itself on the defensive and Khan, having gone too far with his demands, is at the point of no return. Most recently, rifts have also occurred within the party causing seasoned politician and PTI President Javed Hashmi to be expelled from the party for disagreeing with the decision to lead protests toward the PM House with women and children in tow. Further fuelling rumors, in a controversial media appearance, Hashmi claimed the protests were being coordinated by the Army —  an accusation vehemently denied by the PTI and followed by a strong rebuttal from the Inter-Service Public Relations claiming that "the army is an apolitical institution."

In a  study conducted by the PEW Research Center before the protests erupted, Khan’s popularity is steeply waning, while Sharif’s remains more or less the same. Currently, 64 percent of Pakistanis hold a favorable view of the prime minister, essentially implying that he could draw on public support if executed wisely. Khan’s popularity presently stands at the high rating of 54 percent, a critical 17 percent decrease from the previous year.

Despite strong ratings, the government finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Having asked the Army chief to serve as "mediator" between the two sides, a claim that the Sharif government denies, the prime minister is in a tough spot to either illustrate his loyalty to the system or to cede control of critical portfolios of security and foreign policy to Pakistan’s all-powerful establishment in a bid to save his seat. Though the Army chief refused to mediate and asked both sides to engage in "meaningful dialogue", the denial comes after 11 out of 12 parties in parliament announced unanimous support for Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N) and rejected Khan’s "unconstitutional" demands. Many have criticized Sharif for turning to the military instead of the parliament and have opposed the involvement of the Army in the matter. Though vowing to defend democracy and defiantly stating that his government was here to stay, turning to the Army to broker an agreement has made Sharif appear weak and desperate. The constant denials by both sides is yet another reminder that the two institutions are far from being on the same page, dealing a blow to an already hostile relationship Sharif suffers with the military.

The civil-military imbalance has become more pronounced with Sharif’s indecision and hesitancy of launching a military offensive in the north against the Taliban. Improving relations with India and remaining adamant on pursuing a personally motivated trial against his nemesis, former president and Army chief, General Pervez Musharraf has widened the divide. Perhaps emboldened by an outright victory in the May 2013 elections, Sharif has attempted to assert civilian supremacy over the country’s powerful military. Many analysts believe that the Army may have engineered the current situation to remind Sharif exactly who holds the reins of power.

The Army so far has played its cards carefully. Gone are the days when the Army would seize state institutions and insert its chief in the seat of power. By creating an ‘enabling environment’ instead, it is able to generate an invitation to intervene for the sake of ‘national interest.’ However, Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif seems to portray little political ambition. Nonetheless, observers point out that the recent attack on a state broadcaster’s building by anti-government protestors that forced the channel to go off-air for 45 minutes could not have been executed without tacit approval from the military.

After an emergency Corps Commanders meeting, the Army reaffirmed its support for democracy, yet ominously stated that it is "committed to playing its part in ensuring the security of the state." It is seemingly unlikely (though not impossible) that the Army, which has governed Pakistan for most of its history, will initiate an old-school coup. Instead, the Army has shrewdly placed the onus on Pakistan’s civilian institutions. Though public support for the Army is strong, another military coup will damage the Army’s credibility at a time when it cannot afford a backlash or attract international sanctions. Should civilian power fail to control the situation, the Army may be ‘asked’ to come in, further discrediting the democratic system and empowering the military. However, depending on how Sharif chooses to play the game, he may continue to confront the Army to a point where the only option left would be to remove him. An ousting of the prime minister by the Army will undoubtedly draw strong criticism to the institution and publicly illustrate that it has never truly been tolerant of civilian rule.

Ultimately, what Khan has done is nothing short of dangerous. By leading people onto the streets, he is not only challenging the prime minster but has openly threatened the system of democracy that he continues to claim to defend. For democracy to thrive in Pakistan, institutions must be allowed time to strengthen without being threatened by any one political party or institution. With the first-ever democratic transition taking place just a year ago, what Pakistan needs at this critical stage is stability and consistency. But by challenging the system itself, what Khan has inadvertently also done is inject much-needed accountability from elected leaders, himself included. The result of inflicting such pressure on a sitting government and bringing military intervention to the forefront is that public expectations will force an ineffective system to be fixed. Election fraud will be taken far more seriously and the next elections may be monitored more carefully than ever before. A broken system will now be injected with a level of accountability not because Khan wanted it, but because few in Pakistan want to see the same situation unravel again.

It is difficult to predict how the current political crisis will unfold but Sharif must be allowed to complete his tenure. He has already stated, "The nation [can] be sure, I will neither resign nor go on leave." But he has been stripped of his powers and will essentially serve as a toothless prime minister with little power or say in critical issues. In a recent joint session of Parliament, political parties criticized Sharif for his mishandling of affairs but reiterated their commitment to democracy. In response, Qadri and Khan united, holding a joint rally without any alteration in their demands. Many blame Khan for putting people’s lives in danger and assisting to create a situation that has allowed the Army to intervene. Rigid in his demands and publicly launching personal attacks against the sitting government, Khan’s political career, by many estimates, is over — making him one of the biggest losers in this entire saga.

But with protests intensifying and an escape route dissipating, there is also no clear victory for the government, the opposition, or at this point, even the Army. 

Arsla Jawaid is a MA of International Affairs candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter: @arslajawaid.

Arsla Jawaid is the former Managing Editor at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad (ISSI). She is currently pursuing an M.A. degree in International Affairs at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter: @arslajawaid. Twitter: @arslajawaid

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