The South Asia Channel

Street Challenges to Pakistan’s Democracy

Pakistan is in political turmoil yet again.

Walk into Islamabad's city center and you will find charged crowds of as many as 70,000 people demanding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's resignation from office.

These protestors are part of two different sit-ins. One is led by Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Canadian lawyer turned cleric who has a religious cult following, but no political stake in the Pakistani system, whose total overhaul he has called for. The other protest is far more consequential in that it is driven by Imran Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party won the second-largest number of votes in Pakistan's 2013 elections and who heads one of the country's provincial governments. His justification for thrusting Pakistan into crisis is that those elections were rigged and thus the government is illegitimate.

But Khan has also rallied his supporters against the government by attacking its inability to resolve key governance challenges such as energy shortfalls, economic disparity, and domestic security. He has also talked about getting rid of the current political system in which he sees no future for the average Pakistani. Like Qadri, Khan's proposals for remedying this remain inchoate; many of his supporters in the urban upper middle class have in fact been disproportionate beneficiaries of the system even as they bemoan its failings. Despite the internal contradictions, Khan's message of a need for profound change for the country, an echo of his core theme in last year's election campaign, continues to resonate.

Examine the protests dispassionately and you'll quickly realize that they have no constitutional legs to stand on. For all the talk about electoral rigging, there is no evidence of broad interference with the outcome of last year's results. The government's efforts to use legal loopholes to deny Khan a proper audit of a handful of constituencies notwithstanding, it has not stepped out of line of the constitution, and has no obligation to order new elections.

Qadri's (and Khan's) calls for forcibly resetting the system through a show of street power, on the other hand, are self-evidently unconstitutional. Never mind their dismissive attitudes towards Pakistan's process of democratic transition and consolidation, which has received accolades from around the world. These protests represent way more than a storm in a tea cup. 

Tune into Pakistan's all-powerful media, partake in drawing room gossip, or talk to common folk on the street you'll find sympathy with the protestors. The impetus for it comes from the feeling -- from the elite down to the pauper -- that the current system of governance is so corrupted and corroded that it simply can't deliver. The perception is that the ruling elite -- whoever it may be at any given point in time -- are so self-centered and driven by patronage politics that they will never let a fair and transparent system capable of providing for the basic needs of the people prosper.

The last two weeks have been an eye-opener for Pakistan observers who tend to measure democratic progress in procedural and constitutional terms. The feeling on the street in Pakistan today is remarkably similar to Ben Ali's Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak's Egypt before the Arab Spring. There is no dictatorship in Islamabad, and no violent revolution in the offing given the military's strength, but the desire to reset the system in the hope of more judicious governance is just as strong.

You talk to a cross-section of Pakistanis about the value of democracy and they'll quickly point to the conditions in their country. They won't support military rule, but they can't bear the status quo. And if you suggest that incremental progress within a democratic system is the only way to get what they desire, you'll find deep-rooted skepticism. Not under these rules of the game, they would argue. 

Ironically, even government supporters won't disagree. As status quo beneficiaries, they want this government to complete its five years in office, but had any other party come into power, they would be just as likely to be found on the other side of the barricades.

Khan and Qadri have set an extremely dangerous precedent in Pakistan. If they succeed in bringing down the government, the locus of political contestation in Pakistan will shift to the streets, rather than in the parliament. Today, it is Khan and Qadri asking for a reset of the system. Tomorrow, it will be the religious political parties agitating for more Islamic laws. And next, it will be the militant Pakistani Taliban, demanding a "truly Islamic" Pakistan.

This process of succession through sit-ins is also dangerous because it cements the Pakistani military's role as the ultimate arbitrator in all such situations. As we have already seen, the military is now formally arbitrating between the politicos to end the impasse. To be sure, by asking the military to do so, the government has only brought out in the open what has been true all along: that the military could have blown the whistle on the crisis at a time of its choosing, forcing either the protestors or the government to call it a day.

The military's mediating role has unsurprisingly turned the focus of the debate to the state of civil-military relations and the military's continuing veto in Pakistani politics. Important as that is, the government, all political parties in the parliament, and indeed the military must realize what this agitation really represents. It is about deep apathy and distrust in the system that governs Pakistan. It is about unresponsive governance, the exclusionary nature of patronage networks, and the average citizen that can't bear to put up with this anymore. It is about Pakistanis losing faith in their state's ability to uphold even a semblance of the social contract with its citizens. It is about Pakistan's democracy being closer to the brink than we think.

Moeed Yusuf is the director of South Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.