As Washington mulls the Islamic State’s advances and Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, Pakistan’s democratically elected government is facing massive protests backed by some in the military and intelligence community. Led by Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri, thousands of protesters are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a year after his victory in an imperfect but nationally and internationally accepted election. With covert military support, Khan is also demanding new elections and Qadri a utopian political system overhaul.
Pakistani democracy is messy but military dictatorship – direct or indirect – is not the answer. So the protesters should stop currying favor with the army, and Prime Minister Sharif should work with the protestors to find a constitutional solution that covers electoral and governance reforms.
Washington should support democracy so nuclear-armed Pakistan, next door to Afghanistan, can focus on combating Al Qaeda and its partners. In the last 12 years the likes of Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, sectarian terrorists and violent separatists have killed nearly 20,000 Pakistani civilians and 6,000 security personnel. Civilian leadership over the Pakistani military will decrease provocative policies towards India like supporting insurgents today only to fight them tomorrow. Moreover, a stable South Asia needs more democracy, not less. Democracies are less likely to go to war with other democracies.
The current showdown between the protestors and the government is due to last year’s national elections, the prime minister’s attempt to reign in the generals by supporting peace with India, and the trial of former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. Indeed, Javed Hashmi, Khan’s number two, who was recently fired, said that Khan and Qadri plotted with the Army and its intelligence agency, ISI, to oust Prime Minister Sharif. Demanding Sharif’s resignation is the military’s attempt to regain lost power.
Last May, defying Pakistani Taliban threats, millions of Pakistanis voted for their country’s first democratic transition. With an historic turnout of 55 percent, nearly 15 million voted for the current Sharif administration and 8 million for Khan. Qadri did not even participate.
The European Union’s Election Observation Mission report called the 2013 elections the “first national elections held under legal obligations of the treaty [UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]“. The report noted “no grave violations of the Election Commission of Pakistan’s Code of Conduct for Political Parties and Candidates,” and stated “most of the polling booths observed were rated as satisfactory or good.”
Observers from the National Democratic Institute and Asian Network for Free Elections noted that the “administration of elections was much better than in the past and that both officials and the public were better informed.” Based on directly observing over 38,000 polling stations, Pakistan’s Free and Fair Election Network reported that 1 percent of polling stations were physically captured and 3 percent had incidents of ballot stuffing.
That said, these election observers also highlighted serious problems, including religious, sectarian and gender discrimination of candidates, and the lack of oversight of temporarily appointed vote counters by the Supreme Court. The election commission did not have the authority or resources to actively oversee vote counters or provide swift remedies.
Even after the elections were largely accepted, the Sharif administration showed poor judgment and impeded Khan’s demands for investigating voter fraud, which galvanized support against the government. Soon after, Sharif’s brother ordered the police to harass Qadri’s supporters in Punjab, and the ensuing clash left 11 dead and over 100 injured. The relatives of dead were not permitted to file a police complaint for over two months.
Certainly, the protestors have a legitimate gripe: electoral reform. Most Pakistani political parties agree on decreasing future voter fraud, but they don’t support Khan and Qadri’s solution: force the prime minister to resign, replace the Sharif administration with military-approved caretakers, and then hold new elections.