The South Asia Channel

Is Pakistan's Democracy Under Threat?

Although he won a big mandate last year at Pakistan's polls, Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister of Pakistan and head of the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim league (PML-N), is under siege at home. The country's vociferous media is hyping up the clash between Sharif and Imran Khan, Sharif's foremost political challenger and the head of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), who is organizing a "long march" on Islamabad on Pakistan's upcoming Independence Day on August 14. Meanwhile, Tahirul Qadri, the influential Pakistani-Canadian preacher, has announced a competing "Revolution" march on the same day to overthrow the political system. Widespread discontent at Sharif's performance in office to date and the determination of the security establishment to avoid ceding primacy to civilian rule has added to the sense of a looming political crisis.

Sharif made extravagant promises during the 2013 electoral campaign that have yet to be fulfilled. For example, the delivery of basic services remains dismal across the board -- in particular, the severe energy shortage shows no sign of resolution. Another problem is that political power is excessively centralized. Sharif and his closest associates call the shots on all major initiatives, which has reduced the pool of available technocratic expertise and made the regime vulnerable to the charge of crony governance. Sharif himself has been disengaged from parliament, appearing a mere seven times in the national assembly over the course of the first parliamentary year. And much needed economic reforms that could result in job creation and significant economic growth -- such as the widening of the tax base -- have yet to be undertaken, in part due to the fear of political fallout.

Still, things could be much worse given the situation Sharif inherited, with an economy on the brink of default. Sharif has made progress by restoring the macroeconomic stability of the country, bringing the budget deficit down, increasing tax revenues, and slowing the pace of inflation. All of these steps have been praised by the International Monetary Fund, which approved a $6.6 billion loan to head off a crisis in the country's balance of payments last September, and which has released each tranche of those funds based upon the government's performance. These efforts, however, have yet to significantly impact the daily lives of most Pakistanis.

Sharif's political opposition now seeks to capitalize on public discontent by exerting pressure on the government through the mobilization of street power. Foremost among them is Imran Khan, who has historically tried to undercut Sharif on populist issues, including drone strikes, negotiations with the Taliban, price hikes, and corruption.

Now Khan seeks to elevate the question of electoral fraud in the 2013 general elections to the forefront. Since the elections, the PTI has alleged significant voter fraud. While rigging undoubtedly took place, some of which probably undercut Khan's support, there is little reason to believe that the main election outcome would have been substantially different. After many years of failing to do well in elections, the 2013 results were a striking success for the PTI, making it the third largest party in the country while granting it the dominant role in the government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

In recent months Khan has escalated his demands: At first he called for auditing the votes in a few districts; he then demanded a country-wide audit. Today, he is calling for early elections so that a new government can be ushered into power. His long march on Islamabad on August 14 is meant to demonstrate widespread support for these demands and pressure the regime into caving in.

Many in Pakistan believe that the increasing stridency of Khan's rhetoric stems from the tacit support of influential elements within Pakistan's security establishment. At the least, Khan has been emboldened by rising tensions between Sharif and the army, which has its own grievances with the civilian government. Sharif's dogged pursuit of General Pervez Musharraf, who deposed him in a coup in 1999, has irked an army accustomed to being above civilian control. The army has issued veiled warnings through proxies -- including Musharraf himself-- about the courts going too far. Sharif's support for Geo TV, a television network that has run afoul of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency due to criticisms of the security establishment, has been another bone of contention. And Sharif's attempt to assert his authority in foreign policy has aroused the army's ire as well. In the case of India, in particular, the army wants to control the pace of any warming up of the relationship, and views with suspicion attempts by Sharif and his associates to bring down trade barriers through regional diplomacy.

Sharif is taking the potential convergence between his civilian and military opponents seriously. His 10 day sojourn in Saudi Arabia in July during the last days of the holy month of Ramzan, was in part about gaining the support of senior Saudi officials, who have longstanding ties with Pakistani security establishment, to prevent a further deterioration in relations between Sharif and the army.  

From Khan's perspective, he has little to lose by going all in. PTI's current electoral prospects are as promising as they have ever been. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Pakistan's second largest political party, is still licking its wounds after a disastrous showing in the 2013 elections that essentially reduced it to a provincial party with sway in Sindh province. With time, however, the PPP will rebuild its power at the expense of Khan. At the same time, the PTI government in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is struggling with governance and failing to deliver, which will become harder and harder to justify the longer it rules. And even if early elections are not held for whatever reason, the demonstration of street power still keeps the pressure on the PML-N and reduces public confidence in the government.

Although the other major political parties do not have as much to gain, they too have jumped on the Khan bandwagon, jockeying for political advantage and looking to weaken the PML-N. While few have yet to echo the maximalist demands of PTI, depending on the right circumstances this may change. Tahirul Qadri's Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) party, which also ascribes to a revisionist agenda, is a significant wild card. Although Qadri is not an elected representative, his demagogic call for replacing the current political set up with a more Islamic order resonates among some urban constituencies, and he has consistently turned out large demonstrations.  Violent clashes between his supporters and the police -- which may have acted with excessive force -- left four people dead and dozens injured this past weekend in Lahore.

In the coming days and weeks, this turmoil may resolve itself in a wide number of different ways, all with precedent in Pakistani politics. One possibility is that Khan will be unable to mobilize the extent of street power he is relying on, in which case the pressure on the regime will lessen. There may be large rallies and demonstrations in Islamabad but they will last only a few days, exhausting the patience of beleaguered citizens whose lives will be disrupted. Sharif may grant a few limited concessions to his opponents but neither side will emerge with a decisive victory, and the political stalemate will persist.

Another possibility is that Sharif's tenure will be abbreviated as a result of the agitation. In this scenario, Khan, Qadri, and others will organize massive, ongoing demonstrations in Islamabad and other major cities, helping to create a sense of chaos. Any prolonged government paralysis in the face of ongoing demonstrations and a rise in criminal and militant activity will redound to the benefit of the anti-Sharif camp. While the government is not going to buckle easily, if the perception of chaos continues for an extended period of time, then the civilian opposition may unite around the mantra that Sharif has to go. This will especially be the case if Sharif overreacts and law enforcement authorities exhibit excessive force against demonstrators, creating political fodder for Sharif's opponents. In such an instance, the army may put pressure on Sharif to hold elections early -- either later in 2014 or early in 2015. However, if Sharif does not oblige, then direct military intervention followed by the installation of a caretaker government is not out of the question.

Yet another possibility is that Sharif will emerge the victor out of this confrontation. Sharif has several options if he chooses to act with political deftness rather than playing into the hands of the opposition. The PML-N's position is strong: It remains the dominant national political party with strong support in the Punjabi heartland and it has significant backing from the business community. All of Pakistan's major parties have representation in the parliament, and have something potentially to lose if the dice is rolled and a new political dispensation is erected. In this context, Sharif could try to cut political deals to divide the opposition, preventing the PPP from aligning with the PTI for example, while making concessions on Khan's legitimate grievances about the electoral process, arguing that he too wants to strengthen democracy. Alternatively, if Sharif can paint Khan and his allies as spoilers whose protests are neither about democracy nor in the interest of Pakistan, he may be able to convert a political challenge into a political triumph. In this case, Sharif's government may be able to act more boldly than it has to date in advancing a serious domestic agenda.

In the roller coaster that is Pakistani politics, nothing is certain and, given the right political alignment, all bets are off. At the present moment in particular, there is an enormous degree of polarization that can lead the country in very different directions. Much will hinge on the size and intensity of the crowds that descend on Islamabad and elsewhere, the extent of buy-in from the other civilian parties for a maximalist agenda, the restraint of law enforcement authorities towards the demonstrators, and the role of the army. For now, we must simply wait to see if Pakistani democracy will live to fight another day.

Ahmed Humayun is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, and can be reached at He tweets from @AhmedHumay

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