Pakistan’s last election brought Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to power with a sweeping mandate. That was supposed to consolidate the democratic process for the country. This was the first time one civilian government had passed power onto another democratically elected government. The oft-repeated claim was that the hangover from past military rule had burdened civil-society just enough to prevent a regression. Most people today would share that sentiment, however reluctantly.
That reluctant strain has only found more space to ruminate in the past three weeks, as the central government ties itself up in knots of mismanagement, following an almost ritualistic script from the past. There are several threads to this story that are all intersecting at the wrong time for the Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government.
Two months ago, following an attack on the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi that left 30 dead, the military launched a major offensive — dubbed Zarb-e-Azaab, or “Sharp Strike” – against militants in North Waziristan. Though details on the progress of the operation are murky, what is clear is the displacement of over a million people with no place to reside besides poorly resourced government shelters and camps. Pakistan’s past patterns of migration would suggest that many of these internally displaced people (IDPs) will find their way to urban centers such as Karachi, which is already grappling with conflict between competing ethnic groups. The inadvertent consequences of this operation will inevitably produce greater unrest in Pakistan’s financial capital, which is already distraught with problems of gang violence and political turmoil.
The second line running through this narrative is the story of Imran Khan, chairman of the Pakistan-Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI), who claims that his third place finish in the last election was due to electoral fraud. Khan’s allegations of election rigging however, have no basis: of the 58 petitions filed by his party members requesting an audit of various constituencies, 70 percent have been decided, with not one in favor of PTI. Secondly, Khan’s party, which formed the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, continues to struggle with governance, having achieved little during its term despite riding high into office on a wave of populism. Having failed on both accounts, Khan has found a path by playing opposition politics through his “Million Man Freedom March,” with the goal of wringing a mid-term election from the central government so that seats can be reallocated on the basis of those results. Until this demand is met, Khan vows to remain encamped in the capital of Islamabad.
Meanwhile Tahir ul-Qadri, a Canadian-Pakistani preacher-cum-politician, is holding a “Revolution March” with the hope of bringing down the central government through coercion. Speaking to a rally of thousands of supporters, Qadri vowed to “bring down the system” and urged his supporters to “kill anyone who returns without completing the job.” During the last election season Qadri led a similar protest with thousands of people in attendance, demanding a review of electoral laws. This time however, Qadri’s supporters openly clashed with authorities at an earlier protest, leading to several deaths and the arrest of about 500 of his supporters. Speaking to his rally on Saturday, Qadri demanded the dissolution of parliament and the arrest of Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab.
While Sharif has sought dialogue with both Qadri and Khan’s camps to address their grievances, he acted in a way that brought back the specter of military rule. As of August 13, 1,600 of Qadri’s supporters had been detained under the Punjab Maintenance of Public Order and about 400 others were arrested for their hostilities against authorities. Law enforcement sealed entry points into the capital in an attempt to block supporters from reaching Islamabad. Additionally, authorities erected barriers preventing food deliveries from reaching the Qadri camp at an earlier protest, prompting Altaf Hussain, leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), to issue a 30 minute ultimatum to the central government to reopen the routes. Amidst this political crisis, the Karachi Stock Exchange (KSE), which had been one of the best performing stock markets this year, plummeted by 1,375 points on August 11, Pakistan’s largest ever one day drop in share prices. By responding to the protestors with a heavy hand, Sharif fanned the same flames he had intended to calm.
The question now stands: Will the military actively intervene and impose martial law? The fears of such a turn are well reasoned; however, the environment which preceded prior coups has not quite formed. Moreover, it is unlikely that the military wants to intervene this time around. It is no secret that both Khan and Qadri have links to the military, and the military does not view Sharif favorably. Sharif was deposed by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999 and announced his decision to prosecute the former general for “high treason” a month into his tenure. Second, Sharif’s possible rapprochement with India is said to have raised eyebrows with the Army leadership. Third, coups in the past have been preceded by protests from the largest political actors in the country. In this case, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which came in second place in the last election, responded with a willingness to play the role of mediator rather than agitator. Other influential parties including the MQM and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), have likewise cautioned against outright conflict and have urged all parties to enter into negotiations. And while both Khan and Qadri frame their marches as having attracted the support of hundreds of thousands of people, crowd counting confirmed that Khan was only able to draw 10,000 people while Qadri’s count stood at 12,000.
What happens following the conclusion of this protest will shape the course of Sharif’s tenure. If the government ventures forward in an uncompromising manner, then growing calls for an intervention to quell the resulting instability and uncertainty can be expected. The more likely scenario will involve some concessions from Sharif, which he has already made in a televised address to the nation, calling on the Supreme Court form a commission investigating electoral irregularities in the past election. Additionally, “well-placed official sources within the federal government” revealed to The Nation that an unwritten agreement was reached between Khan, Qadri, and the central government. Under this framework, Khan and Qadri will not stage a prolonged protest in the nation’s capital, provided the central government complies with a list of assurances. Eventually all sides will return to their camps, proclaiming victory. Khan will claim that his initial calls for a Supreme Court investigation were accepted, and Qadri will maintain that his march succeeded in bringing attention to his 10-point demands. Sharif will have escaped the biggest threat his government has faced in office. The winner in this crisis though will be the Army, which will have astutely checked the reach of the Sharif government through an adroitly managed campaign.