Imran Khan’s Demonstrations: Civilian Democratic Governance Loses

Over a month of street demonstrations in Islamabad organized by Imran Khan and his party (the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf) in association with Sufi religious cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, his political party (the Pakistan Awami Tehreek), and his religious organization (the Minhaj-ul-Quran) have resulted in: the diminished authority and legitimacy of Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, of the elected civilian government, and of the first peaceful, electoral transition of power in Pakistan; the reassertion of real power by the military; and no real gain for the demonstrators and their goals. It is in effect a lose-lose effort for democracy and stability in Pakistan and a defeat for Imran Khan personally and politically.The two protesting partners had different objectives in organizing the demonstrations. They were tactical collaborators of convenience more than long-term allies. Both asserted that Prime Minister Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-N (for “Nawaz”) had not legitimately won the May 2013 elections because ballots were stuffed, the counting was bungled, and the election in general was mismanaged. Consequently, they demanded that the elections should be voided and rerun with oversight by an election commission of competence and integrity. In the interim, Nawaz Sharif should resign or be dismissed by parliament. Qadri’s aims had less to do with elections results per se and more with broader issues of corruption and advancing his moderate form of Islam,  human rights, constitutional change, and opposition to terrorism, while Khan was about advancing his personal political ambitions. As long as their relationship remained tactical and their success prospective, they were not obliged to reconcile the divergence in their respective objectives or in their respective organizational performance.

However, as the demonstrations grew, became violent, and replicated in other parts of the country, so too did the awareness that the civilian government was unwilling or unable to assert on behalf of the state the rule of law necessary to permit orderly demonstration without yielding control of the streets and core government institutions in Islamabad. For that, the prime minister was finally compelled to reach beyond the police and conspicuously to request help (“facilitation”) from the Army.  Note, that the prime minister met the Army chief of staff with a request not a confident instruction, a clear demonstration that the elected civilian government did not enjoy the unquestionable compliance and deference of the military. The Army in turn requested of the protagonists 24 hours to mediate the crisis but also announced that it would not tolerate disruptions or intrusions by the demonstrators into either the government’s offices or those of foreign embassies. That warning stuck unlike the similar warning of the civilian leadership. However, the Army required, again conspicuously, two meetings with the prime minister and it took its own good time—three days—in responding positively to him. The demonstrations have since just petered out in Islamabad as a result more of ennui and the threats of intervention by the Army than on purpose.

Qadri has enjoyed a minor victory. Notwithstanding his base in Canada, he has re-asserted his position as an influential religious leader in Pakistan and championed his stance on the nature of the state and society. His goal is long-term. He is now a more significant player among religious leaders with political intentions.

By contrast, Imran Khan was weakened. What were his objectives? What did he intend to achieve? And how? As he said, he wanted a new election from which he would emerge victorious and lead the country. Yet, he received only about 17% of the vote translating into 10% of the seats in the National Assembly, albeit he claims he was robbed of many more votes. Although even the election commission conceded that far too much ballot “rigging” and other “irregularities” had transpired, Khan cannot realistically believe his public claim that a new fair election would make him the actual victor and prime minister or even a major political force outside his home state of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where almost all of his votes were concentrated. Absent military intervention, there will be no prime ministerial abdication and no new election, since the government’s coalition enjoys a large majority in parliament. The former cricket hero is in danger of appearing as a political jester. In fact, it is widely believed, perhaps inaccurately, that Khan was secretly encouraged by the military to mount his inauspicious demonstrations precisely to demonstrate the weakness of the civilian government and its continued dependence on the real power, the Army.

Prime Minister Sharif has brought some of this on himself by insisting on the prosecution of former president and (more important apparently) former Army chief of staff, Pervez Musharraf who ended Sharif’s last prime ministerial term in a coup. Whatever the equities of the case against Musharraf, his arrest and prosecution has unsettled the Army. In this instance, Sharif is bucking the political realities and may pay the price for doing so. The military’s response to the demonstrations may have been just the down payment and a signal to the prime minister of what might lie in the future.  So perhaps Khan was, in fact, a military pawn. Either way, he has lost.

But the larger loser is the settled peaceful democratic transition of power pursuant to the election, ostensible civilian control rather than another return to military rule, the prospects for democratic governance more generally, and the stability of the political order in Pakistan. Sharif has attempted to turn his civilian government to Pakistan’s critical problems. He has reached out to India, attended Prime Minister Modi’s inauguration at Modi’s invitation but supposedly against the advice of Army chief-of-staff Raheel Sharif, and attempted to forge some greater normalization between the two countries on the constant edge of war. He has focused greater attention on terrorism and violence throughout the country, on the major problems of infrastructure (including electrical brown-outs, water insufficiency, and flood control), and on improving the economy (the agricultural and manufacturing but also the financial sectors), and on the abysmal education system.  The terrorist havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas menace not only Afghanistan but Pakistan itself. Balochistan houses the Afghan Taliban’s Quetta Shura as well as its own Baloch insurgency. Karachi is ungoverned. Domestic terrorists have struck in Karachi, Lahore, the Swat valley, Islamabad, and even the General Headquarters of the Army in Rawalpindi. Unless these issues which endanger the viability of the state and society are addressed by the elected civilian government, the still-incipient gains of democracy will be threatened along perhaps with the cohesion of the state itself. But the month of intense demonstrations has diminished the authority of Prime Minister Sharif and so also both the prospects for dealing with these issues forthrightly and, longer-term, for civilian, democratic governance.

Gerald F. Hyman is a senior adviser and president of the Hills Program on Governance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Gerald Hyman
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Office of the President