Last week, tens of thousands of protestors descended into the heart of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, demanding that the federal government make sweeping electoral reforms and then give way to an army and judiciary-endorsed caretaker government that would oversee general elections.
The protestors were dedicated, braving the cold, and, at times, rain, for four nights. They were disciplined, following their leader’s command and not engaging in violence. They were organized, staffing themselves with teams to handle emergency medical care, live tweeting, and music. And they were strategic, alternating between Urdu and English-language chants, with different messaging for domestic and foreign consumption. Yet, despite these strengths, they essentially failed.
The protests led by cleric-politician Tahir-ul-Qadri hit a brick wall made of Pakistan’s mainstream, democratic parties. These parties, including members of the governing coalition and opposition, consolidated ranks to block what they viewed was an attempt to sideline them and detour Pakistan’s path to full democracy.
On Wednesday, opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif led a meeting with Islamist and ethnic nationalist parties — some of which had previously supported military interventions — to oppose the postponement of the elections and army involvement in the decision-making process. The next day, members of the federal government coalition met with Qadri and negotiated a face-saving settlement that allowed him to nominally claim victory before his followers without having achieved his most important demands. The federal government, meanwhile, avoided having to forcibly evict peaceful protestors from a sensitive area. Federal government spokesman Qamar Zaman Kaira, who the day before performed a brutal impersonation of Qadri in a press conference, spoke before the protesters, hailing them and their leader, and terming the day a victory for democracy.
The events of last Thursday were indeed a victory for democracy, but a victory in a single battle in what will be a long war. Pakistan’s nascent democracy is not yet safe from military Bonapartism, judicial activism, or the moral bankruptcy and incompetence that pervades much, though not all, of its political class. The grudge match to determine the delineation of power in Pakistan continues. But at the same time, it is safe to say that there are fundamental changes in the attitude and behavior of Pakistan’s civilian politicians that bode well for democracy.