Author: Rosita Armytage, ANU
It started off fun. The Azadi (freedom) March led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chairman and former cricketer Imran Khan, and the Inquilab March (Revolution March) led by Tahir Ul Qadri of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) party have created a festival atmosphere in the nation’s capital of Islamabad. Both Khan and Qadri are demanding that elected prime minister Nawaz Sharif resign and have stated that they and their supporters will not leave the protest site until he does.
Protest is an important part of democracy. But demanding the resignation of an elected leader, rather than a return to the ballot or a recount of the votes, is not democratic.
Both leaders have prompted their supporters to break the boundary fence of the National Assembly, to storm the prime minister’s house (which they have not been able to do) and to storm the public broadcast channel PTV (which they did). Both leaders have led their supporters to abrogate the constitution. They have failed to provide a viable opposition to the far-from innocent current government, and have failed to demonstrate the fortitude required to push legislative reforms through parliament. Both leaders have also led their supporters into violent clashes with the police. The police responded predictably to incursions on state buildings by firing rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd. During the last week, the police began arresting large groups of protesters for acting in a ‘manner prejudicial to public safety or the maintenance of public order’ on what most agree are feeble grounds.
Like all great carnivals, the festival atmosphere of the tent city in the heart of the parliamentary zone sours during inclement weather as those who can escape the muddy grounds for home, and then quickly revives as the sun rises, and rejuvenated weekend-protesters again flood the protest site. Despite the damage to the democratic process being sought by Khan and Qadri, the protests are a powerful indicator of the frustration, anger and resentment felt by so many Pakistanis towards a government that has failed to serve them — and failed to deliver on its promises. Despite Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s promise in his inaugural speech to close ‘the doors for favouritism and corruption’, the leadership of Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shabaz, Chief Minister of Punjab, continues to be plagued by accusations of corruption and cronyism.
Khan’s claim that the last election was rigged has grounds for support. The lack of electoral transparency has been noted by civil society organisations such as the Free and Fair Elections Network (FAFEN). But the charge has not been proved and requires a full review of records held by the Election Commission of Pakistan. This is a task for a judicial commission, not an opportunity for an opposition leader unable to support his claims with electoral data to become judge and jury.
Qadri’s claim that the government is rife with corruption, although rarely disputed, is similarly inadequate as grounds to demand the prime minister’s resignation. Qadri’s efforts to dismantle the democratic political system he once freely participated in provide no clear vision and no long-term strategic plan for eliminating corruption and creating a fairer, more just Pakistan.
In contrast to the circus currently underway in Islamabad, it turns out that building and sustaining a democracy is a long and often tedious process requiring not ‘revolution’ but commitment to the democratic system and the bureaucratic processes of which it is comprised. First among these processes is adhering to the constitutional mandate that elected leaders see out their term — or are challenged through an early election.
Khan and Qadri have made no serious demand for a fresh election (though they have not explicitly come out against it), because they know they do not have the supporter base to win.
Real policymaking — beyond the flashy made-to-be-noticed infrastructure projects that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shabaz Sharif are known for — is usually not all that exciting. Developing, and even more importantly, steadfastly implementing, monitoring and regulating the critical economic growth policies required by the country need incremental, ongoing commitments. The government must be committed to resourcing and prioritising these issues beyond the election cycle. Working to overcome the vested interests of the powerful lobbies against tax reform; combating terrorism not only in Punjab, the political constituency of the Sharifs, but across Pakistan’s provinces is vital for the growth of businesses and for ongoing investment; and tackling the country’s massive education crisis are not easy challenges. They are not quickly solved and they are not usually characterised by momentous breakthroughs.
There is nobody dancing in the street when a senior bureaucrat writes a sensible policy proposal and submits it to the minister. There is nobody dancing in the street when a government official refuses to appoint the friend of a friend to an important position within the finance or education ministry, and instead hires someone competent and committed to effectively implement that policy. There is nobody dancing in the street when an individual business opens and employs 30 people because they believe the laws protecting their investment will be upheld and that their daily business will not be affected by ongoing security challenges.
An estimated 10,000 protesters demanding the resignation of an elected leader is not democracy. It is careless national-hostage taking by an opportunist who has shown himself time and again to have no strategic vision for the country and a committed religious idealist whose charter of reform includes the dissolution of parliament and the assembly.
Rosita Armytage is a researcher and a PhD candidate in anthropology at the Australian National University.