Pakistan’s democracy on the rocks

Just when many thought Pakistan was finally on the trajectory towards a functioning democratic system, unrest broke out in a number of cities and provided a stark reminder just how fragile the country’s politics remain.

Steven A. Zyck Maryam Mohsin
8 September 2014

Just when many thought Pakistan was finally on the trajectory towards a functioning democratic system, unrest broke out in a number of cities and provided a stark reminder just how fragile the country’s politics remain. This whole situation not only threatens democracy in South Asia’s second most populous country but also draws attention and resources from sustainable development and humanitarian challenges.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan accuses the current Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, of rigging the May 2013 elections and robbing him of victory, and is calling for him to stand down. All sorts of allegations and rumours are being thrown into the mix - has Khan been plotting this for months in collaboration with the disgruntled army? Is the army using Khan as a pawn to oust a government that is diminishing the role of the army in politics? Who knows? Khan’s actions make one thing clear: that he is willing to jeopardise Pakistan’s burgeoning political stability.

What’s the story? More than two weeks ago, Imran Khan, the Oxford-educated cricketer-turned-politician, and Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Pakistani Canadian-based political and religious figure, started coordinated marches in Islamabad. The marches culminated in a protracted ‘sit in’, as many refer to it, in the city’s secure Red Zone, where many major government institutions are located. Related demonstrations and strikes have taken place in other cities across Pakistan.

All in all, the situation has remained relatively peaceful, though some violence emerged this past Saturday when police forcefully repelled demonstrators – some armed with clubs and other weapons – as they attempted to storm the Prime Minister’s official residence. Three were killed in the resulting violence and more than 400 were injured, earning some sympathy but not necessarily support for the demonstrators. The army then issued a statement of ‘concern’ about the situation which calmed tensions and opened space for dialogue among the parties involved. All sides, particularly Imran Khan, have predictably claimed victory.

While significant and influential, it is important not to exaggerate the magnitude of these protests. The numbers of demonstrators mobilised by PTI and Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) party are disappointing. PTI expected tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of ordinary Pakistanis to spontaneously join the march. So far, the reported number of demonstrators in the Red Zone stands at roughly 25,000.

Nor do the demonstrators appear to have changed much in the short term. Parliament has remained intact and the elected Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, hasn’t gone anywhere. Nor did Imran Khan or PTI demonstrators succeed in convincing anyone that last year’s elections were fraudulent. While many believe that ballot box stuffing – by several parties – did take place during the elections in May 2013, on the whole Pakistan’s Electoral Commission, the rest of the country and the international community have rejected Khan’s claim that the election was rigged and accepted the results as fair (or maybe, more accurately, as fair as they could be when in a rocky transition towards democracy).

While the demonstrators do not appear to have been particularly successful, this hardly means that the Prime Minister and his Pakistani Muslim League are beyond reproach. He and his party have been accused – not without justification – of corruptionnepotism and patronage. Many in Pakistan who spoke ill of the demonstrators still agreed that some of their grievances are accurate and need to be addressed. More to the point, these are all fundamental issues that need to be addressed if Pakistan is ever going to move forward and shake off its familiar past.

However, if Imran Khan’s quest for a more democratic and less corrupt political system is genuine, surely it makes more sense to prove himself effective in opposition, hold the government to account, help put the right transparency measures in place and only then let the nation decide on a change at the next general election in 2018. Trying to reverse Pakistan’s small steps towards democracy  is both undemocratic and increases the likelihood of weakening the state.

Imran Khan has a golden opportunity. He could put not only corruption and governance back on the political agenda but also fight for social and economic development and equality across the country. Pakistan has made great strides to alleviate poverty in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, but Baluchistan lags behind and many still live close to the poverty line.

The drought in Tharparkar district in Sindh has already killed around 1,000 people, including children and women. Over 400,000 people remain displaced in North Waziristan. Pakistan still faces a national energy crisis and remains ill-prepared for future floods and other disasters. By championing such issues, Imran Khan, Qadri and others – particularly the Prime Minister and his party – can earn the votes needed to make a strong showing in future elections.

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