Pakistan’s Protests – What they Mean and Why they Matter

One could be forgiven for missing the most recent bit of troubling news out of Pakistan these last few weeks, what with the national media’s eye currently trained on ISIS’ horrific advance through Syria and Iraq. Led by the celebrity-turned politician Imran Khan and the Pakistani-Canadian cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, thousands of demonstrators have occupied central Islamabad for the past several weeks in protests that recently turned violent as participants attempted to enter government buildings. Their demands include the resignation of Pakistan’s democratically-elected Prime Minister. Despite being overshadowed, the present political instability in the world’s sixth most populous country poses serious consequences for Pakistani, regional, and global security.


The last time Pakistan jumped to the top of the foreign policy agenda was during the 2013 parliamentary elections, the successful completion of which was a significant milestone for the country, resulting in the first transfer of power between two democratically-elected governments in its history. The outgoing regime, headed by Asif Ali Zardari and the center-left Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) had hobbled to the finish line after a tumultuous term in which it oversaw growing public frustration with a stubbornly stagnant economy and a crippling energy shortage, widespread criticism for its dreadful handling of the 2010 floods, and periodic rumors of an imminent military coup.

Following the 2013 elections, Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) swept into power, falling just short of an absolute majority in the National Assembly. The pro-business center-right party, with its industrialist (and two-time former Prime Minister) leader ran its campaign on promises of economic and energy sector reform, and managed to beat back challenges from populist political newcomer and former cricket star Imran Khan, as well as the fading PPP.

After decades of military coups and political manipulation, Sharif showed an early desire to make use of his mandate to reestablish civilian authority over key foreign policy decisions that were traditionally the strict domain of the Army and its powerful intelligence wing, the ISI. This included relations with India, an improvement in which could open the door to greater regional economic integration, but would widely be seen by the military establishment as a direct affront to its raison d’être – protecting the nation from its massive, hostile neighbor.

Aside from these policy issues, Sharif is widely seen as having a bit of a bone to pick with the Army on a personal level, having been unceremoniously booted from power by his then-Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. Musharraf, after being removed from power himself in 2008, made an ill-advised return to Pakistan to contest the 2013 elections and was promptly arrested and charged with treason for violating the Constitution during his own power grab. Sharif, upon his election, thus faced a crucial question – what to do with his rival? The military establishment, not keen on seeing one of its own brought down by a civilian government, has certainly been watching.

The Protests

The current set of protests began this summer with Khan and Qadri calling for supporters to march on Islamabad to demand the ousting of the Sharif government, reforms to the electoral system, as well as investigations into voter fraud allegations in 2013 and the killing of fourteen Qadri supporters by police this past June in Lahore. While the Sharif government has agreed to virtually all of these demands with the exception of stepping down, Khan and Qadri have thus far refused to call off the protests, insisting that the present government must resign.

While the protests lack the support of any other major opposition party and, peaking at an estimated 30,000 (in a country of almost 180 million), have failed to live up to organizers’ claims, they are likely to have considerable repercussions for Pakistan and the region. Although the dust has yet to fully settle, we may safely reach a few conclusions.

First, while facts may be slippery things in the field of Pakistan civil-military relations, it has grown increasingly clear that the Army is likely playing an important role in the current round of unrest. Speculation as to both Khan and Qadri’s military connections have been rampant since they emerged on the political scene, and the Wall Street Journal recently reported efforts between the government and military leaders to forge a deal in which Sharif would agree to allow Musharraf to leave the country and relinquish control over key foreign policy issues in exchange for an end to the protests.

This would, of course, fit a historical pattern of military meddling in politics through the manipulation of opposition parties and the fomenting of political unrest. Indeed, one must only look back to the 1990s and the cynical utilization of opposition parties by the ISI to repeatedly topple both PPP and PML governments. Capitalizing on the “ineptitude” of civilians to deal with unrest, while playing the role of the mature, paternal mediator is a tried and trusted Army strategy, and the present protest trajectory seems to fit the bill. While an all-out coup is unlikely, given the staunch opposition to military rule displayed by virtually all political parties and civil society groups (Khan and Qadri’s followers excluded), the Army may be attempting to use the current protests to back Sharif into a corner and extract concessions.

As discussed, the Army has plenty of motivation to weaken the Sharif government. Its strong electoral mandate and apparent desire to expand civilian authority are direct threats to the Army’s privileged position as national arbiter of foreign affairs, to say nothing of the social and financial largesse gained by being the State’s most powerful and venerated institution. Qadri, whose Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) party holds no parliamentary seats, and Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) fell short of his national ambitions would also stand to gain by being the Army’s partners of choice. 

Second, despite populist rhetoric, the repeated calls for Sharif’s resignation are a disservice to the continued growth of democracy in the country. There is little evidence, for instance, to support the claims of massive election fraud that would justify the removal of the present government. Khan and Qadri do tap into widespread frustrations with the rampant corruption and shoddy governance provided by the ruling class, however efforts to overthrow a legitimately elected government will only further weaken Pakistan’s civilian institutions, play into the hand of an overly powerful military, and squander the promise of renewed democratic governance and rule of law that the 2013 elections held.

Third, although it appears that early reports of Sharif’s downfall may have been premature, Khan, Qadri, and (with little doubt) the Army have forcefully demonstrated just how vulnerable even the strongest political mandates can be in a country where civilian institutions are still vastly overmatched. Even if, as is likely, Sharif manages to stay, he will be in a significantly weakened position. As the protests begin to fade and face-saving talks commence, Pakistan’s political big wigs in uniform – playing the role of “moderators” – will no doubt seek concessions from the Prime Minister, including renewed authority of key foreign policy matters (read: India), and assurances that former President Musharraf will be spared from treason charges. This is bad news for Pakistan’s medium-long term stability in that it provides justifications for the Army’s continued political supremacy, weakening civilian governance and rule of law. 


The foreign policy implications are also significant. In the short-medium term, Sharif’s weakened position greatly damages chances for any breakthroughs in Pakistan-India relations. The Army has built its national reputation on defending Pakistanis from their former countrymen and has used this defensive imperative to justify everything from massive budget allocations, to pseudo-private enterprises, to the support of Islamist radicals. Without a paradigm shift in relations between these two South Asian giants, it is unlikely that any of these will change. Even as the Army launches massive military campaigns in North Waziristan to root out anti-state militants (another key development that seems to have gone unnoticed), support for “friendly” Islamist elements will no doubt continue as long as Pakistan feels threatened by its much larger neighbor.

Finally, continued political instability is the last thing a country like Pakistan needs in its efforts to revitalize a struggling economy, staggering under the weight of a growing youth bulge. Indeed, PTI and PAT have managed to garner what support they have due in large part to utter frustration and disillusionment with the ruling classes’ seeming incapacity to address the country’s infamous 16-hour-a-day blackouts and economic malaise. Unfortunately, while the average Pakistani has every right to be outraged at government ineptitude, the arbitrary overthrow of a democratically elected government at the behest of political opportunists can offer little in the way of positive change. 

As the United States and its allies prepare to leave Afghanistan, the primary impetus for continued engagement with one of America’s most complex allies may evaporate – as it did following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988. History has shown the perils, however, of ignoring this massive, nuclear armed, and strategically significant country. While the US government has shown a short-term pragmatic willingness to work with Pakistani military leaders in the past, long-term stability, economic growth, and regional integration will likely depend on the continued expansion of civilian oversight over all areas of governance – including foreign affairs.

If there is reason for optimism, it is to note that were these events occurring in previous decades, we would most likely be looking at a complete military coup. Pakistan’s civilian government and civil society have presented a unified voice against the overthrow of an elected government – a rhetorical transformation from earlier periods of political unrest. In the face of so much pessimism, this reason for cautious hope deserves mentioning. Nevertheless, today’s protests are a troubling reminder of the fragility of Pakistan’s democratic institutions and the murky political underworld in which its biggest decisions are often made.

Photo by Asadwarraich/ CC BY-SA 4.0


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