By Kabir Altaf
For the last ten days, Pakistanis have been fascinated by the sit-ins occurring in Islamabad. Led by Imran Khan (of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf) and Tahirul Qadri (of the Pakistan Awami Tehrik), the movement is calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of the dominant Punjab Province. The PTI is also calling for election reform and for the holding of midterm elections under a new caretaker government. This anti-government movement has deeply polarized the country, particularly on social media. Many young Pakistanis are supporting Khan’s demand for Sharif’s immediate resignation, arguing that the May 2013 general elections were massively rigged and that the PML-N does not have the people’s mandate. Others argue that Sharif is the legitimately elected Prime Minister and that he cannot be forced to resign simply because a mob of 55,000 people demand it. They worry that the prolonged sit-ins may force the all-powerful “third force”, the Pakistan Army, to step in and declare Martial Law.
While most reasonable people would concede that the 2013 elections were rigged to some extent, it is questionable whether this rigging substantially changed the results. Nawaz Sharif’s party won by a landslide– especially in Punjab (the dominant vote-bank of the PML-N). Observers called the elections the fairest held in Pakistan’s history (not that this is high praise, given Pakistan’s shaky grasp on democracy). Asides from the issue of the possibly tainted mandate, it is highly unlikely that either Nawaz or Shahbaz will resign. The PML-N has the support of most of Pakistan’s political parties. This past Saturday, former President Asif Zardari, the Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, had lunch at the Sharif estate in Raiwind, outside Lahore, after which he declared that he was fully in support of Nawaz Sharif. Rumor has it that Nawaz offered Zardari the post of President of Pakistan, which the latter is said to have declined. In any case, the PPP and other major parties are in agreement that the demand that the sitting Prime Minister resign is “unconstitutional” and cannot be countenanced. Cynics may argue that this seeming solidarity is simply members of corrupt political dynasties protecting each other. However, unless there is much more public pressure on Sharif (or perhaps pressure from the Army), his resignation seems almost impossible. At the time of writing, the Army also seems remarkably uninterested in intervening; saying only that the parties must settle the issue through negotiation. Perhaps, if the standoff continues or the situation turns violent, the “third force” may be forced to take matters into their own hands.
Imran Khan wants Sharif to resign. Suppose he does. What then? Khan wants new elections held under a caretaker setup as well as electoral reform. Since systemic reform cannot happen immediately, it seems likely that any new elections are likely to be as flawed as the most recent one is said to have been. Suppose the new elections do not bring Khan to power. Will he accept the results as legitimate? Or suppose that Khan does succeed in becoming Prime Minister. What is to say that a year down the line, mobs will not be protesting in Islamabad demanding his resignation? Forcing a sitting Prime Minister to dissolve his own government sets a bad precedent and would derail democracy in Pakistan.
Imran Khan could have pursued the alternative course of focusing on governing in Khyber-Pakthunkhwa (KPK), the province where his party did receive a mandate and formed the governing coalition. If he had succeeded in addressing the issues of the province, he would have been in a stronger position for the 2018 general elections and perhaps would have succeeded in winning power in Punjab. However, Khan seems to have had little idea of how to address the challenges of KPK, the province that has borne the brunt of the “war on terror” and the instability in Afghanistan. Rather, he found it was easier to lead agitations and hold protests. There is a section of opinion in KPK that feels that Khan has ignored the province in an attempt to win power in Punjab, the locus of power in Pakistan.
A final point needs to be made about those young Pakistanis who are advocating for some kind of French or Russian Revolution or even for an “Arab Spring”. These people seem to be discounting the fact that revolutions are bloody and often lead to civil war. The French Revolution led to the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The Russian Revolution caused civil war between the Bolsheviks and the “white Russians” who supported the Czar. Even the example of the “Arab Spring” is not exactly salutary. Though the Egyptian people did succeed in removing Hosni Mubarak from power, the legitimately elected government of Mohammad Morsi was itself removed through a military coup. Khan has repeatedly labeled Sharif the “Hosni Mubarak” of Pakistan, suggesting that he sees himself as Morsi. If so, than has he considered the real risk of being summarily removed by the Pakistani equivalent of General Sisi? As for his young supporters, the prospect of sending the Sharifs to the guillotine may seem attractive, but they should remember that revolutions often cause entire societies to turn on each other. With the Sharifs go much of the Pakistani establishment, the business community, and the landed classes. It would seem difficult to believe that the prospect of civil war in Pakistan is something that would be acceptable to many of PTI’s young supporters. Revolution may be necessary, but at what price?
At this point, the best one can hope for is that some accommodation will be reached between the government and the protestors, perhaps through the formation of a national unity government. If the success of the sit-ins does force Sharif to implement needed electoral reforms, they will have had some positive impact. At worst, the impasse may lead to prolonged instability in the country, forcing the Army to impose Martial Law, an outcome that very few Pakistanis—whether PML-N or PTI supporters—want.
Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University.