Dissent is the cornerstone of democracy. It strengthens the voice of the people and widens the scope of democratic institutions. However, the right to dissent at times becomes a weapon to subvert and undermine representative democracy. This is what is happening in Pakistan.
Pakistan has been in the grip of protests for over three weeks. The cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has been holding demonstrations in the capital, Islamabad, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Khan argues that the national elections held last year were rigged and as a result he was denied victory. Additionally, Khan contended that for 14 months, he petitioned Pakistan’s courts and electoral bodies for a recount to no avail. Therefore, he utilized his last resort – protest.
This comes at a time when it was starting to look as though democracy was finally beginning to take root in Pakistan. Last year’s election marked the first peaceful transfer of power between elected governments in Pakistan’s history. This raised hopes that Pakistan’s parliament would become supreme and that its army would become subservient to elected representatives.
But the recent developments in Islamabad have again exposed the fragility of the democratic system in Pakistan. It has demonstrated that the Pakistani army is not willing to play second fiddle to politicians.
It is popularly believed that Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri, an expatriate imam who is the other leader of the protests in Islamabad, are proxies of the army. Qadri’s organization, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) and the PTI are arguably propped up by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Pakistani army’s powerful intelligence wing. The purpose of this is to undermine the authority of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has been asserting his power and making decisions independent of the military establishment. Additional reasons that the Pakistani military may disapprove of Sharif are his talks with India and the civilian trial of former military dictator Pervez Musharraf.
The very fact that the PTI continues with its maximalist position, calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister, implies that Khan has some kind of understanding with the army, which he hopes will intervene in the crisis as chaos grows. Pakistan’s history is replete with instances in which the army has used political uncertainty as an excuse to usurp power. It’s not certain if this pattern will repeat itself this time around, but it is clear that the entire political agitation is an attempt to undermine democracy and its supporters.
Political parties and agitators are now engaged in talks to end the long impasse. Though politicians from mainstream parties have come together to engage the demonstrators for talks, this has been done at the prompting of the army. It is possible that Khan and Qadri might water down their maximalist demands and find exit routes through some compromises but the end result would be the weakening of the democratic system.
Pakistan’s current situation somewhat resembles the anti-corruption movement in India from a couple of years ago. This large political mobilization shook the Indian establishment and galvanized all sections of society. It brought even those who had been on the political periphery into the fold of democratic dissent. Even though there was resistance from politicians, Indian democracy was ultimately strengthened by this experience and a whole new generation experienced democratic politics. However, in Pakistan, unlike India, protests seem to be weakening democracy rather than strengthening it.
Pakistan’s protestors are not demanding democratic reforms but desire a system where the army is supreme and holds the final authority on issues. Khan seems to be doing everything possible to humiliate and destroy a democratically elected government.
The army has gained from this as both Khan and the government have turned to the army to help them stabilize the situation. However, a special session of parliament has been called to assert the power of Pakistan’s elected representatives. All of Pakistan’s mainstream political parties have come together in order to find a legal way out of this political crisis.
Will Sharif be able to restore the faith of the people in his government and in democracy? His authority seems to have been undermined by the army’s aggressive role in the protests. As such, Sharif will have a tough time ahead neutralizing the army and winning the confidence of the people.
In the nearly 70 years of Pakistan’s existence, the army has ruled the nation multiple times. Each time it has failed the nation both domestically and externally. Its highhandedness led to the separation of East Pakistan from the rest of Pakistan and the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. Its policies have radicalized large segments of Pakistani society and made the country a hub for terrorism. As a result, Pakistan is bleeding internally and the military and the ISI are probably the biggest threats to Pakistan’s existence today.
By acting as a proxy of the army, Imran Khan is doing a great disservice to the nation, which once hailed him as a hero. Young people supported him in the hope that he would make Pakistan a modern, moderate Muslim nation. There was hope that the Oxford-educated cricket player would help usher in a new system in feudal Pakistan. However, ironically, Khan represents what is worst in Pakistan today: he vouches for religious extremists, supports the Taliban, and seeks the support of the army in order to come to power.
This is the real tragedy of Pakistan. For Pakistan to be free of extremism, it also needs to be liberated from its army. No matter what happens in Islamabad now, the cost for Pakistan’s democracy will be great. Either Sharif’s government will fall or it will lose credibility.
Although Pakistan had the chance to strengthen its democracy in 2013, today it is in a place where democracy comes to weep.
As an abiding friend of Pakistan this pains me.