Author: Peter Drysdale, Editor, East Asia Forum
The two-week-old political crisis in Pakistan took a sharp new turn over the past few days as the military leader, General Raheel Sharif, positioned to mediate the stand-off between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and opposition demonstrators on the streets of Islamabad, led by cleric Mohammed Tahir-ul-Qadri and his ally cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. Whether Prime Minister Sharif or Tahir-ul-Qadri and Khan initiated the move to military mediation and how the military has played into the development of the crisis itself are questions that are at this stage difficult to determine. But senior politicians and constitutional experts have denounced it as a national disgrace that reflects badly on the commitment to genuine democracy across the political spectrum.
It’s little more than a year since Prime Minister Sharif was swept to victory in the first democratic change of government in the country’s history.
This success, despite a violent campaign by religious extremists to derail the election, saw a 60 per cent voter turnout and a result that reflected disenchantment with the ousted Pakistan People’s Party and its corruption and poor economic management, within the framework of the growing strength of the courts and constitutional process.
Sharif, a self-made billionaire in the steel industry, promised a more market-oriented and less regulated economy than that of Pakistan under President Asif Ali Zardari, as well as the prospect of a pick-up in economic growth. But judged on his previous stint in power, it was unwise to expect any marked diminution in corruption or ‘money politics’ from Sharif, or restraint in the victor-takes-all approach to political conduct. Far from providing good governance, security of life and property and basic necessities, Prime Minister Sharif and his political and blood brother Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of the most populous state of Punjab, have focused on high visibility projects and overseen the descent of the economy into the inflation and electricity shortages which characterised the previous Zardari regime, although capital flows have risen and inflation fallen somewhat. Broken commitments on releasing former general Pervez Musharraf and public condemnation of the former army chief by Sharif’s allies have also incensed the rank and file of the army.
Two things triggered the present crisis. Imram Khan’s belief that there was widespread vote-rigging in the 2013 elections, explains Sajjad Ashraf, led to him to call for an audit of four constituencies where his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party lost. Instead, Sharif offered an audit of four constituencies where PTI candidates won’. Fearing a meltdown in his Muslim League, Sharif stonewalled, leading Khan to up the ante with the campaign for Sharif’s resignation.
Tahir-ul-Qadri’s joining the campaign, Ashraf goes on, was triggered by the ‘attack on his Lahore offices by the Punjab Police killing 14 and injuring 90 on 14 June. For over two months the Pakistan Awami Tehrik’s attempt to get the case registered against the 23 accused — which includes the Sharif brothers and several of their henchmen — has been thwarted despite a court order…Qadri seeks justice for the victims among other demands for the cleansing of the political system’.
As Syed Mahmud Ali points out in this week’s lead ‘Pakistan’s history has been marked by turbulence, as elected politicians vie with permanent bureaucracies — uniformed and civilian — for power and influence. Abysmal governance, rigged elections, violent protests, military coups and separatist insurgencies have plagued national progress. Although democracy has been a useful framework for both governance and power transfers (even by military rulers), popular consent and aspirations have shaped policy only marginally’.
Ali argues that the outpouring of frustration at the base of the present impasse is symbolic of Pakistan’s political systemic dysfunction. The state remains divided along myriad fissures, and the construction of a coherent, overarching national identity is a national task that is still far from complete. Punjab’s overbearing political, military, demographic and economic dominance is not mediated by political power-sharing among the stakeholders, a condition that, in 1971, saw East Pakistan’s secession and the formation of the state of Bangladesh. The non-Punjabi provinces are yet to be ‘tamed’ within the state.
Against this backdrop, Ali argues, ‘Nawaz Sharif’s landslide victory in May 2013 did nothing to resolve the fundamental malaise afflicting Pakistan’.
Civilian governments have in recent times sought to weaken the army’s role in critical areas of foreign policy and security. Though some say that the army is behind the current unrest, the generals do not seem intent on taking over a direct administrative role. But if the political protagonists cannot be brought to resolve their differences through processes that show respect for democratic process, the military was unlikely to watch from the sidelines.
As Ashraf says, ‘democracy is not just numbers — it is about accountability, transparency, effectiveness and justice in governance, all of which are strikingly absent from Sharif’s agenda’.
That is why Ali sees these protests as far more important than their forerunners. They could, he concludes, ‘represent the arrival of a perfect storm’, with young people comprising half the population, women increasingly engaged in political activism, rising unemployment and deep economic vulnerability.
An awesome responsibility now falls upon the Pakistani military in midwifing the birth of a non-martial, non-corrupt, democratic political culture, since that is what is critical to confidence in investing both domestic and foreign money in the nation’s future and breaking with a ‘tradition of violent agitation and rough justice, interrupted only by corrupt passivity’.
Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.