Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, has become the scene of a farcical and fully televised revolution over the past three weeks.
Two marches consisting of thousands of people have converged on the city in an attempt to oust the elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan headed the Azadi (Freedom) March, while the Inqilab (Revolution) March was led by the Canadian-based Islamic scholar Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri. The marchers have since been trying to occupy Islamabad’s Red Zone, which houses the parliament, ministries and offices of the prime minister.
The ease with which thousands of people have penetrated the capital and its sensitive zones is surprising in a country where the army and its secret service nip any mass mobilization liable to endanger state power firmly in the bud. Last year members of the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons, who sought to attract public attention to the thousands of Baloch students, intellectuals and political workers kidnapped and killed by state security agencies, were harassed and attacked by state agents all along their 2,000-kilometre march from Quetta to Islamabad. Their party of 16 people included six women and three children, led by a 70-year-old man.
In contrast, the marchers in Islamabad have been brought unimpeded from Lahore, more than 500 kilometres from the capital, in lorries, vans and pick-up trucks, with all expenses paid by the parties led by Khan and Qadri.
Their revolutionary slogans notwithstanding, in compelling Sharif to behave, Khan and Qadri are doing the bidding of Pakistan’s army. At this point a soft coup has taken place. The only detail to be thrashed out is whether Sharif will be thrown out or stay on as a lame duck prime minister. If he leaves, the army will either take over completely or, more likely, install a compliant and weak civilian government.
Pakistan’s military intervenes in politics, again
The Azadi and Inqalabi marchers evidently enjoy the patronage of the military establishment, which not only forms a state within the state of Pakistan, but also ensures that its hold on the country is not put into question, even symbolically.
Despite not having an audacious program for reducing the army’s hold on the country, Sharif still managed to earn the wrath of the generals. He wanted to put on trial former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf and was supportive of media criticism of the military’s intelligence services. Sharif went a step too far when, on the basis of his overwhelming majority in the parliament, he took initiatives in foreign policy without first informing the military. Even a slight attempt on his part to restore cordiality in relations with India, by attending the swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, offended the army. An elected government is tolerated only insofar as it leaves exclusive jurisdiction over foreign relations and security affairs to the military.
Toppling civilian governments and rejecting election results is a longstanding tradition for Pakistan’s army. When the country’s first general elections were held in 1970, the military refused to accept the victory of the Awami League, a Bengali nationalist party that had won 167 out of 169 seats in East Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh). Put to the sword, Bengalis were subjected to genocide by the military. In 1977 the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was dismissed after mass unrest was kicked off by religious parties. Bhutto was later executed by General Zia-ul-Haq after a sham trial. In the 1990s the governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were dismissed in similar fashion.
cricket star appoints himself national saviour
Imran Khan seems to have decided, sometime after his cricketing career came to an end in 1992, that he is invested with the mission of saving Pakistan. Political program matters little to him. By all appearances he believes that his personality and charisma alone are enough.
Seeing tensions increase between Sharif and the army, Khan opportunistically began his current campaign by demanding — eight months after the ballots were tallied — a recount of votes in four constituencies in which his party had lost by a thin margin in the elections of May 2013. As relations between the prime minister and military worsened, Khan raised the stakes and challenged the validity of the entire elections, demanding the government’s resignation.
Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, holds only 34 seats in the National Assembly, far fewer than the 190 seats held by the ruling party, Nawaz’s Pakistan Muslim League. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf governs the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, but does not possess an absolute majority in the provincial assembly. Khan had to partner with another party, the Islamist Jama’at Islami, in order to retain power there.
In fact, Khan owes even this majority to an unspoken coalition with the Taliban, which during the election campaign set off a wave of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks against the Awami National Party, a secular and nationalist Pashtun party. Candidates for the Awami National Party were forced to practically forfeit the elections to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
Khan and Qadri have become allies of circumstance, but their objectives are very different.
To Qadri’s credit, his program is more coherent. He has proposed an overhaul of the existing political and constitutional set-up, which is summed up by his slogan, “Save the state rather than the politics.” Given the crisis of the Pakistani state and the failure of the army’s policy of relying on religious extremists and jihadis, Qadri argues that the Pakistani state should inculcate religious tolerance, unequivocally condemn terrorism and proscribe sectarian hatred. But reading between the lines, he appears to advocate getting rid of the present electoral and parliamentary system, which might translate into abolishing politics in order to save the state. As to who will do this, it is amply clear that he looks toward the army, which he never criticizes and, of late, has eulogized.
Khan, for his part, does not seem to care much about the flagrant contradictions in his political positions. He has been polishing the image of the Taliban, excusing their bloodletting as trivial and advocating dialogue with them. At the same time, he carefully cultivates a modern image of himself for the urban middle class and does not hesitate in calling local pop singers to animate his public meetings. Khan’s autocratic and despotic behaviour within his party has recently led one party stalwart to distance himself. Javed Hashmi, then part of Sharif’s party, spent seven years in jail under General Musharraf’s regime for denouncing the army’s meddling in politics. A few days ago Hashmi left the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s sit-in in Islamabad, accusing Khan of taking orders from the military.
weakened at a time of existential crisis
The choice of timing for the present confrontation is astounding. The country faces an existential threat from the Taliban and other extremists, as well as a normalized war that rages in the tribal areas.
Whatever the eventual outcome, the shaky constitutional and electoral system will be badly, perhaps permanently, damaged. Electoral democracy and the federal bicameral structure are the only factors that help people maintain some amount of faith in the possibility of a change for the better.
Crucially, this structure also helps protect, to some extent, the interests of smaller and deprived provinces such as Sindh and Balochistan. In the case of a change imposed through extra-parliamentary methods and under the army’s arbitration, the crisis of the Pakistani state is likely to become worse, not better. All the actors involved in the current drama are based in the Punjab, the country’s most populous province, which will deepen the principal fault line of Pakistan. Neither confessional nor sectarian in nature, this fault line is driven by the deprivation of the smaller provinces under the domination of the Punjab.
A blatant disregard for the parliament and the electoral process by the army — an institution comprised of 80 per cent Punjabis — is unlikely to sit well with the rest of Pakistan’s provinces. If this is indeed the case, dismissing Sharif is a small issue. A bigger concern is that the army would not be able to hold on to power without suppression of political forces in provinces outside of the Punjab. The army’s secret services will not leave untouched those who oppose the military’s actions. In the coming weeks and months, Pakistani society will be put under a blanket of control, surveillance and repression by the army as it completes the coup.
By playing into the hands of the army to fuel their petty ambitions for power, Khan and Qadri are further undermining the viability of Pakistan as a country. Sindhis, Baloch and the people of the Gilgit-Baltistan region in Pakistan’s north have already demanded secession from a country dominated by the Punjab. The return of the army to government, in one form or another, will do little for their confidence in Pakistan’s political system.
Khan and Qadri are not the country’s saviours. Their ambitions and the military’s political aspirations threaten Pakistan with yet more bloodshed and chaos. Their palace revolution, which has spilled over into the streets, may appear comical but is most likely to end as tragedy.