Islamabad can't fix its many problems until the government, the opposition, and the military learn to respect the rule of law.
After paralyzing Islamabad for days, the crowds at boisterous protests demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif are starting to thin out. But even if Pakistan’s current political standoff comes to an end, the country’s deeper political crisis won’t.
Sharif, who leads the conservative and pro-business Pakistan Muslim League party dominant in the populous Punjab province, has successfully rallied to his side most political parties represented in parliament. A consensus seems to be emerging within Pakistan’s political class that the country’s fragile democratic system should not be derailed. But the underlying causes of instability — terrorism, ethnic and sectarian conflict, and economic stagnation — remain unaddressed.
The protests were initiated by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Canada-based cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri. The two political allies are clearly tapping into the disenchantment of Pakistan’s urban middle class, which wants social and political reform even if it does not agree on what reforms to adopt. Sharif’s style of governance, which puts family members and friends in charge of key government functions, doesn’t appeal to most Pakistanis. Nor is Sharif’s tendency to try to marginalize all opposition and his confrontational approach towards Pakistan’s all-powerful military winning him many supporters.
Most Pakistani analysts now seem to agree that Khan and Qadri would not have dared to challenge Sharif in the streets had they not been encouraged to do so by someone from within the army hierarchy. The army has ruled Pakistan directly for 33 years and has played a behind-the-scenes role during periods of intermittent civilian rule, including splitting and forming political parties. The military also influences politics by initiating smear campaigns against political figures it does not like by describing them as unpatriotic.
The army insists it has no political agenda. But the timing of the protests, in conjunction with the retirement of top generals, coupled with Pakistan’s history of military intervention, makes the generals’ role suspect. Moreover, Javed Hashmi, Khan’s close associate and president of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party, has now gone public with accusations that Khan told his colleagues that he was being backed by senior army officers. It’s a story that Pakistan has seen many times in its 67-year history. And it is, sadly, a key component of the country’s continuing political dysfunction.
Khan claims that he wants fresh elections because the vote that brought Sharif to power in May 2013 was rigged. That makes as much sense as Al Gore announcing a sit-in 14 months after the 2000 U.S. presidential election. Similarly, Qadri claims he wants a revolution in Pakistan because the country is mired in corruption. But he also has no explanation for why he chose this particular time to return from a decade in Canada, coinciding with Khan’s agitation. Corruption in Pakistan did not start only this summer.
I, like many others, suspect that the protests were timed to coincide with the pending retirement of five top generals, including the head of the ubiquitous Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt. Gen. Zahir ul-Islam. In Pakistan, prime ministers facing political challenges are often more willing to extend the tenure of powerful intelligence chiefs in order to maintain their favor. Previous civilian governments have faced manufactured crises around the time they had to make critical decisions about replacing ISI directors-general.
Sharif may yet succeed in beating back the latest challenge to his authority. But the euphoria about economic reform and peace with India that marked Sharif’s inauguration last year — the first transfer of power in Pakistan’s history from one civilian government to another — is already gone.
Pakistan’s latest imbroglio highlights the country’s permanent political crisis. Despite the constant rewriting of constitutions — the country has had three since its founding in 1947, in addition to several amendments and draft constitutions — Pakistan is far from developing a consistent system and form of government. Political polarization persists between Islamists and secularists, between civilians and the military, and among different ethnic and political groups.
Political factions have often found it difficult to cooperate with each other or submit to the rule of law. At any given time, one or the other political party has been aided by the military intelligence apparatus, which plays a behind-the-scenes role. Political rivalry, like the kind now on display between Khan and Qadri and Sharif, has been cited throughout Pakistani history as a reason for military intervention.
Pakistan’s military, which dominates the state even in the presence of an elected government, has developed a set of policies that include an emphasis on Islam as a national unifier, hostility towards India as the principal foreign-policy objective, and an alliance with the United States that helps defray the costs of Pakistan’s massive military expenditures. These policies have encouraged extremist Islamism, promoted the pursuit of strategic objectives disproportionate to the state’s capacity, and obstructed Pakistan’s political evolution. But the disproportionate focus on ideology, military capability, and external alliances has weakened Pakistan internally.
The military has been developed at the cost of all other elements of national power, such as the economy, education, technological innovation, and institutional strength. The country’s institutions, ranging from schools and universities to the judiciary, are in decline. The economy’s stuttering growth is dependent largely on foreign aid or International Monetary Fund and World Bank financing. GDP stands at $236.6 billion in absolute terms — the smallest economy of any country that has tested nuclear weapons.
But these issues barely get any mention in Pakistan’s national discourse. The oversimplified Pakistani narrative makes it seem that the country’s real problems are wresting Jammu and Kashmir from India, fighting Indian and American "hegemony," and keeping in check the corruption of elected civilian leaders.
Sharif’s latest troubles, too, are the direct result of his attempt to modify that national narrative by wresting control of foreign policy and national security issues from the military. He spoke of normal trade relations with India soon after his election in May 2013, without insisting on resolving the Kashmir dispute first, and argued that Pakistan’s interests are better served by staying out of Afghanistan’s internal matters.
The Pakistani military and its political allies see civilian initiatives for peace with India as treason. The military also remains unwilling to revise its policy of employing Afghan proxies, like the Taliban and the Haqqani network. Pro-ISI television news channels heaped scorn on Sharif for being pro-American and pro-Indian, just as they had condemned the government led from 2008 to 2013 by President Asif Ali Zardari.*
Allegations of collusion between the political opposition and elements within the army seldom surprise Pakistanis: During periods of civilian rule that have been interspersed with direct military dictatorship, the army has consistently refused to submit itself to the decisions of, or scrutiny by, elected civilians. And it has looked for allies wherever it could find them in the political arena. The scope of direct military intervention in the form of a coup has diminished lately. Instead, Pakistan’s 20-odd 24-hour television news channels have become instruments of pressure on elected leaders through vicious propaganda guided by the army’s psychological operations experts.
Both Sharif and Khan have a reputation for obstinacy and their protests were meant to provide the military with a fig leaf for acting as the final arbiter in a political deadlock. A prolonged sit-in outside parliament by Khan’s hard-core followers, joined by Qadri’s devotees, coupled with Sharif’s stubborn refusal to resign, would be perfect justification for a military-brokered settlement.
Educated Pakistanis are often torn between their support for democracy and civilian control of the military, on the one hand, and their desire for social and political reform, on the other. Just as Sharif is a flawed advocate for democracy, Khan and Qadri’s calls for reform are tainted by their covert ties with the military and its intelligence arm.
At the root of Pakistan’s crisis is a refusal of all major actors to play by predetermined rules and in accordance with the constitution. The Pakistani military does not realize that its meddling makes Pakistan less stable, not more. An elected government must have the right to make policy in all spheres, including foreign affairs and national security. But politicians like Sharif also need to recognize that winning an election does not give them the right to govern arbitrarily. As for the likes of Khan and Qadri, they need to learn to wait until the next election rather than cutting secret deals with generals to secure a share in power through a soft coup.
Pakistan’s problems are myriad: a see-saw economy, low literacy rates and educational performance, and growing international isolation as others see the country as an incubator of Islamist extremism. These come from decades of political mismanagement. Unfortunately for Pakistan, the generals and politicians refuse to change their ways. That’s likely to keep the country lurching from crisis to crisis.
*Correction, Sept. 7, 2014: This article originally misstated the years in which Asif Ali Zardari was president. He was president from 2008 to 2013, not 2003 to 2008. (Return to reading.)