Who would have thought that a prime minister and his party elected some 15 months ago with a landslide victory would now be facing the possibility of being forced from office? In a replay of the 1990s, when a succession of elected governments were ousted by street power and military scheming, two political movements have converged to try to oust Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government from power. One of these challenges, led by Sufi cleric and self-proclaimed reformer Tahir-ul-Qadri, claims that the government has forfeited its mandate through corrupt and autocratic leadership. His followers were energized in June by a brutal police putdown of a protest gathering in Lahore, which resulted in the deaths of 14 of his supporters. Qadri postponed a scheduled "peaceful revolutionary" march planned for August 10 after new confrontations the previous day killed eight more people and injured over 100 others across the Punjab. Qadri has called for renewed anti-government protests on August 14.
The other and perhaps more substantial political threat to topple the government is by Imran Khan who plans to lead an automobile ‘march' from Lahore to Islamabad -- also on Thursday. Khan threatens to then flood the capital with protesters and sit-ins. The former cricket star, whose party holds power in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, alleges that many of the May 2013 parliamentary contests were rigged and demands the government's resignation and new national elections. Both protests have been endorsed by most -- but conspicuously not by all -- of the opposition parties in the parliament.
Both the Khan and Qadri camps are widely acknowledged to have close ties to the military. Neither of the two challenges to the government would very likely have gotten this far without a favorable nod from the military. Also, it is hardly a secret that the generals have no love for Sharif; or that Sharif, who was removed as prime minister in a 1999 military coup, remains resentful. But the military's intentions are not clear. Does it really want a politically unstable Pakistan while engaging in large scale military operations in North Waziristan? And is a new national election really part of its game plan? Or could this be about the generals using a breakdown of order to create the pretext for another full military takeover?
The military is not plotting to bring down the Sharif government, much less to seize power -- although there are always unintended consequences. The military's purpose in working through both protest movements --whose intentions are dead serious -- is primarily to keep in check an overstepping prime minster. However much the military's agents may have encouraged Khan or Qadri, both men are seen by the military as too unpredictable and difficult to control if allowed to assume national leadership.
While the military leadership would not shirk from taking power were it deemed necessary, it has little motive to do so now. Despite having relinquished formal power in 2008, the military has never ceded its control over Pakistan's security and foreign policy. Nor has it surrendered its willingness to veto domestic measures thought to threaten its core institutional interests. Otherwise, Pakistan's generals have given the last two civilian governments a wider birth, gladly leaving the civilian government greater responsibility for dealing with the country's formidable economic and social problems.
Just the same, over the last year the military has become increasingly irked by some of Sharif's policies. They are reminiscent of his last stint as prime minister when he tried to expand his powers at the expense of military authority. After coming to office, Sharif persisted in trying to reach a political settlement with the Pakistani Taliban -- that were resisted by the army. The generals have been thwarted in efforts to end the judicial proceedings against former President and Army Chief of Staff Pervez Musharraf, widely perceived to be a target of Sharif's vindictiveness. The military's premier security agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, was livid when the prime minister appeared to side with those accusing it of trying to assassinate one of the country's most outspoken television commentators. And the military has been displeased with Sharif's not-fully-approved initiatives with India and Afghanistan.
The military's motive in encouraging Khan and Qadri has been, then, to rein in the prime minister and to leave him in no doubt that the military controls his political fate. If Sharif hopes to remain in office he will have to follow the course adopted by the previous government headed by President Asif Zardari (also no favorite of the military). When the military was set back on its heels following what appeared to be incompetence in failing to intercept the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden, it feared that Zardari might seize the opportunity to try to rebalance the military-civilian relationship. But the military's influence with the media helped to change the narrative and divert criticism toward the United States instead. Zardari, in turn, backed off in exchange for assurance that he would be able to serve out the remainder of his term in office.
Now Sharif is receiving a similar message. He has already effectively acknowledged his reliance on the military for political survival by his decision to invoke Article 245 of the constitution, calling out the army troops ostensibly to provide security for the federal capital against possible Taliban terrorist reprisals but also to protect his government from its political enemies.
Should Pakistan's major cities experience sustained political violence over the next few days or weeks, the military, however reluctantly, may well seize power. If it does, it will receive, as it has in the past, popular support from a public willing to welcome a strong hand as the antidote to civil disorder. But it is still more probable that the present crisis will end, not with military rule, but with a tamed Sharif government remaining in office and Pakistan left with a diminished democracy.
Assertions and opinions in this editorial are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.
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