How to Derail Democracy
Is the army on the ascent in Pakistan, where all signs are pointing to a weakening of the democratically elected government of Sharif?
Hardnews Bureau Delhi
The recent violent protests in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, have been quite befuddling. There is little clarity on why two seemingly unconnected individuals have begun simultaneous demonstrations for the sacking of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The general suspicion aired, both with great discretion and careless abandon by ordinary people, is that the gentlemen have stepped out of their comfort zones at the behest of the army which is displeased with Sharif’s independent posturing. Pakistan is a hotbed of conspiracy theories and these violent protests are unlikely to be explained away so simply.
Imran Khan, of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, and a Sufi teacher, Tahir-ul-Qadri, who divides his time between Canada and Pakistan, have differing reasons for seeking PM Sharif’s resignation. Interestingly, they were allowed to move in closer to the PM’s house despite the fact that Islamabad is so (justifiably) paranoid about terror attacks. They were allowed to breach the heavily guarded “red zone”. Such freedom for the protesters is unthinkable unless the army was looking the other way.
Both Khan and Qadri are supposedly close to the army. But it still defies logic as to why the army would resort to this when it can just overthrow the government. Altogether, the army has ruled Pakistan for more than 30 years. Sharif’s government, for the sake of records, is the first government that has experienced a democratic succession, winning the historic elections last year. Usually, the 111 brigade parked in Islamabad would respond to orders from the military cantonment in Rawalpindi and tell the civilian bosses that they are no longer acceptable. Some political observers claim the army can’t overthrow the democratically elected leaders as assistance worth $1.5 billion from the US government to the army needs civilian oversight (public law 111/730). Hence, they resort to other strategies to keep the civilian government in check through mob rule and devaluation of participative democracy.
In many ways, these protests represent the zeitgeist of our times when parliamentary democracy is challenged by mob power and TV. So Islamabad resembles what Delhi saw two years ago when Arvind Kejriwal, helped by supporters of Baba Ramdev, took over Ramlila Maidan. They refused to budge till the government passed the anti-corruption Lokpal Bill in Parliament. Kejriwal had challenged the authority of Parliament, too, before sane counsel prevailed on him. To the credit of the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, who didn’t resort to violence to throw out the agitators, the sit-in petered out. The Islamabad protest can also be compared to the one in Bangkok where the old elite in the capital refused to recognise the democratic credentials of Yingluk Shinawatra, who was criticised for corruption. Despite her mass support, she was thrown out by the army, which then proceeded to clamp Emergency on the country.
Like India and Thailand—and scores of other countries where people have occupied the public squares to question parliamentary democracy — Pakistan has been racked by sectarian violence, terrorism and many other problems. Worse, its proximity to Afghanistan means the US keeps a hawk’s eye on its internal politics, even shaping Washington’s foreign policy ever since 9/11. Keeping all this in mind, there is a manifest lack of freedom that Sharif can exercise in running affairs at home. He knows that the last time the army poked its nose into his business, he ended up going into exile in Saudi Arabia.
The Pakistani army’s fight with the radical Islamists in Waziristan has brought it into confrontation with Pakistan’s civilian leadership over how it controls the border to counteract threats to Pakistan.
Does this mean that Khan has found a reason to agitate outside Constitution Avenue in Islamabad, claiming he was stopped from coming to power through ‘vote fraud’ by the army? It seems so. Similarly, Canadian resident Qadri also has his sympathies with the army. Some even call him an asset of ‘military intelligence’. Political commentators call him a ‘hitman’ of the army as he has many sympathisers, but he has no real stake in Pakistan as he does not live there. He gets most of his support from the madrassas that he runs all over the country. Qadri and Khan, have been overseeing the protests from their air-conditioned capsules while many of their supporters dig graves in the boulevard of Islamabad. It is pathetic to witness the ravaging of the beautiful capital in such a manner. The call to surround the Prime Minister’s residence was an invitation to mayhem. The police retaliated by firing thousands of rounds of tear gas shells and rubber bullets, even resulting in a few deaths. Later, their supporters attacked the television studios of Pakistan TV and captured it for some time till they were ousted by the security forces.
In any other country, an attack on the Prime Minister’s residence or the PTV studio would have invited strong retaliation, but the army has been restraining the Sharif government’s hand. Although it is claiming to support democracy and is against overthrowing the government, the army’s strategy is only diminishing Sharif’s authority. Sharif has vociferous support from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which wants the PM to defend the Parliament and fight the anti-democratic forces. His problems lie primarily in how to deal with the army. In the past few months, since General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s retirement, the PM had managed to enlarge his influence substantially. Against the advice of the Pakistan Army chief, Sharif even came to India to attend Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. The Army-friendly Pakistani media criticised him for travelling to Delhi and displaying avoidable subservience. At the time, it became apparent that the army wanted to take control of foreign and neighbourhood policy, similar to what used to happen during the days of Kayani.
More recently, sharif has been keen on normalising trade ties between the two countries as he believed that peace with India would limit the influence of the army. The decision to have Secretary-level talks between the two countries, which were cancelled by Modi due to the Hurriyat’s meeting with the Pakistan High Commissioner, was to take a step towards better understanding between the two countries. Although the Indian foreign office has made it clear that it would be willing to speak with Pakistan again, the country’s steady implosion makes that scenario unlikely to happen. The Pakistan army has been upping tension on the borders, and according to some military experts, the LoC has not witnessed so much cross-border firing since 1965.
All these happenings point to a very complicated reality. Not only will the forces of democracy weaken in Pakistan, there is a strong likelihood of the army calling the shots again. The civil society, media and the judiciary that had managed to gain so much democratic space may be severely impacted by the turn of these events. As was the case in Bangkok, ordinary people will be happy to see the temporary chaos and uncertainty curbed by the intervention of the only institution they still trust – the Pakistan army. The happenings in Pakistan have major implications for the region as the radical Islamists of the Lashkar-e-Toiba or Tehrik-e-Taliban may forge ties with the Islamic State to give a new spin to the crisis in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan.