The protests that have rocked Islamabad for weeks seem to be soothing somewhat, with opposition leaders Imran Khan and Tahir ul-Qadri reportedly agreeing to begin negotiations for a political solution – but lasting damage to the country’s democracy may already have been done.
With memories of the Arab Spring and Kiev’s Euromaidan fresh in our minds, it’s tempting to see the turbulence in Pakistan as a moment of revolutionary instability and change. Addressing their massed supporters from atop shipping containers, the charismatic cricketer and playboy turned politician Imran Khan and the patrician ex-pat religious leader Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri are visibly charged with self-righteous anger, determined to foment street unrest and bring down Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN government.
Vivid images of a besieged parliament; crowds occupying parts of Islamabad’s “red zone”, the inner sanctum of Pakistan’s ruling elites; protesters surging towards the residence of the prime minister; violent clashes between police and rioters; and a mob temporarily taking state television off the air have all reinforced the image of a descent into chaos.
And even as it has tried to publicly keep to the sidelines, Pakistan’s powerful army still looms over the turbulence, deeply implicated in the unfolding drama despite proclaiming its neutrality.
But to make sense of the tension and violence that’s gripped a small section of Islamabad, we must put it in the context of the country at large.
Pakistan is a nation where serious riots over food prices and energy shortages are commonplace, where political violence and terrorism claim thousands of lives each year, where street disturbances and tear gas often bring sporting events to a premature end, and where sectarian tension and violence blight the lives of millions.
And yet, the election of May 2013 was, by Pakistani standards, a resounding endorsement of a democratic ideal. It drew a record turnout of over 55% of the electorate; Sharif’s PMLN won with over 14m votes, giving it the largest electoral share (33%).
For its part, Khan’s PTI came third (after the PPP), winning almost 17% with 8m votes. But in the same way as the Liberal Democrat vote is underrepresented in the British parliament, Pakistan’s electoral system meant this translated into just 35 seats in a parliament of 342 members.
At the provincial level, Khan’s PTI took control of the small province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), but its local regime there was quickly mired in infighting and charges of incompetence.
The relatively limited scale of the current protests indicates that support for the rule of the constitution remains strong, and that anti-government sentiment has a limited power to mobilise people against a democratically elected government. Khan’s storming of central Islamabad mobilised just a tiny fraction of his supporters (certainly less than 0.5%), while Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, whose supporters are widely reported to be the majority of those involved in violence, has been elected by no-one and commands no parliamentary seats.
Khan’s intended “million man march” on the capital failed to materialise: fewer than 25,000 supporters of Khan’s PTI and Qadri’s PAT managed to sustain a collective presence in the capital.
Meanwhile, many PTI supporters across Pakistan have been left looking on in horror at the violence. They will be deeply dismayed by Khan’s decision to make common cause with an unelected religious leader, explicitly intent on the revolutionary overthrow of Pakistan’s constitution.
To be sure, there is widespread sympathy for Khan and Qadri’s criticisms of the 2013 elections and outrage at the corruption of Pakistan’s ruling elite – but there has been little evidence of any serious sympathetic mobilisation in other towns and cities. That reflects a general bewilderment at Khan and his party’s tactics.
Many are wondering why the PTI has so disastrously mismanaged KPK, why its MPs walked out of parliament rather than defending the political process by working for reform within the system, and why the party’s leadership has bypassed the many electoral reforms recommended by the EU Electoral Monitoring Commission (and supported by Pakistan’s major donors), and instead taken to the streets.
Fired up with self-regarding indignation and convinced they each embody the answer to Pakistan’s problems, both Khan and Qadri fail to see the danger of the precedent they have set: if they can “capture” the political agenda with a small determined mob, so too can any other demagogue.
Nawaz Sharif is therefore justified in defending the PMLN’s right to govern and the primacy of the constitution, for all the faults of both. Similarly, those parties which have committed themselves (however loosely) to the rule of law, due process and the constitution are also acting in Pakistan’s long-term interests. Khan and Qadri are not.
The most serious long-term implications of the current turbulence in Islamabad, however, may be for the army. It seems not to want a coup against Sharif, but if it has supported the rise of Khan’s PTI and Qadri’s PAT and enabled their semi-occupation of central Islamabad (as some have suggested), that is a high risk strategy indeed – and will only contribute to the damage already done to Pakistan’s democracy.
As most observers of Pakistan and commentators within the country agree, beyond the Islamist fringe, there is a deep and abiding desire for democracy among ordinary Pakistanis, rich and poor. But by stirring up these ostentatious protests and weakening Sharif’s hold on power, Khan and Qadri have threatened not just the PMLN, but the whole democratic system.