A highly publicized march organized by former cricketer and perpetually indignant politician Imran Khan has managed to gather between 20,000 and 60,000 protesters, a mere 2%-6% of the one million promised by Khan. Although this outcome is rather disappointing, Khan’s rally runs the much larger risk of disrupting Pakistan’s fledgling democracy by pitting current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif against the powerful army.
Imran Khan is a man on a mission. Despite his claims that last year’s parliamentary elections were rigged, the election where Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League – N (PML-N) swept to power, Khan is not a democratic crusader fighting for the rights of the average Pakistani. In reality, Khan’s mission is quite simple: to become Prime Minister at any cost, even if it entails the derailing of Pakistan’s democracy. Simply put, the only true affront to Pakistan’s democracy that occurred during the last election was, in Imran Khan’s view, that he himself was not elected – an inconceivable reality for a former national sporting icon.
To be fair, it is most probable that there was a degree of impropriety in last year’s election, however nowhere near enough to account for Sharif’s electoral tidal wave. What’s more, the evidence that Khan has provided has thus far proved to be circumstantial at best. Furthermore, the steps required to satisfy Khan – unclear electoral reform and the resignation of the PM – would likely do little to increase the transparency of politics in Pakistan. In fact, it would just make him easier to elect. From the onset, it’s pretty clear that Imran Khan’s march is nothing more than a political stunt.
Thus, with this overblown delusion of grandeur, Khan embarked on a political march determined to force the resignation of the Prime Minister. Concurrently, the Islamic Scholar/Cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri organized a similar, but initially unaffiliated, march to demand the resignation of the Prime Minister. Originally touting his plans to rally over one million demonstrators, Khan has had to settle for a mere 2%-6% of that total – including the demonstrators present in the Qadri march. Given this dismal outcome, Khan has been forced to save face by threatening violence – including an incursion into the protected ‘Red Zone’ in Islamabad where major embassies and government facilities are located under high protection.
Imran Khan’s self-serving and wholly baseless march has thus far failed to catapult the former cricketer into the Prime Ministership, however it has uncovered potentially cataclysmic fault lines between Sharif and the military.
The Prime Minister’s history with the military is hardly positive. Indeed, during Sharif’s last stint as Prime Minister in the 1990’s, he was ousted by a military coup that swept General Pervez Musharraf to power and sent Sharif to political exile in Europe. Since assuming the office again, Sharif has worked relentlessly to wrestle control away from the army. Yet for all his efforts, the Prime Minister is facing the institution that has viewed itself as the guardian of country unity since the death of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder; relinquishing power will be no easy task. In recent months, operations against Taliban cells on the country’s border with Afghanistan have demonstrated the lingering influence of the army on domestic and international politics.
What’s more, Sharif’s actions against the army are often seen as skewed by his personal vendetta against ex-President Musharraf. Indeed the trial for treason of Musharraf does bear certain odd qualities that can be interpreted as personally fueled. For one, Musharraf is the only member of his administration to be hauled in front of courts. Second, Musharraf, as a former army chief of staff, still enjoys a great deal of support among the military establishment. Thus, Musharraf’s trial has proven to be intensely personal both for the army and for the Prime Minister: a noxious combination. In a rare political move this April, the Army Chief of Staff Raheel Sharif made a statement saying the institution would preserve its dignity and pride at all cost. The statement was the first public expression of frustration from the army that was long seen as outraged by the trial of its former commander.
Fast-forward a few months later to Imran Khan’s show of (un)popular approval in the streets of Islamabad. Having failed to gather the numbers he had initially touted, Khan’s threats of violent escalation might be the spark needed to force the army out of their barracks and into the Pakistani political world. To date, there has been limited violence that must be credited to Sharif’s management of this crisis. Despite this act, Sharif’s government, and notably its timid willingness to negotiate with Khan and Qadri, has weakened the Prime Minister. Should fighting break out and instability settle in, it is likely that the army could intervene to restore order. Although such an intervention may not take the form of a full on coup d’état, it would likely return a great deal of power to the military. Most destructively, such an intervention could roll back much of the democratic progress Pakistan has achieved since 2008.
Pakistan’s democracy is far from perfect. Entrenched feudal links, institutionalized corruption, and an exclusive governing class are notable threats to staying power of democracy. Yet for all its faults, Pakistan has experienced just over six years of democratic rule including a peaceful transition of power among parties – a positive sign of democratic development. This month’s protests run the risk of undermining much of these gains.
It is a pity to realize that the self-centered actions of an egomaniac could derail Pakistan’s economic development yet this serves to underscore the global significance of these demonstrations. Imran Khan has managed to undermine what little credibility he had left; now time will tell if his protest to ‘restore democracy’ has managed to undermine it as well.
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