An anti-government protester wears a helmet with pictures of Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-opposition politician, in Islamabad.
An anti-government protester wears a helmet with pictures of Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-opposition politician, in Islamabad, September 2, 2014.
Akhtar Soomro / Courtesy Reuters

Pakistan has once again plunged itself into domestic chaos. Since early this summer, two popular personalities -- Imran Khan, the former cricketer and Lothario turned conservative politician, and Tahir ul-Qadri, a Canadian-Pakistani activist Sufi cleric -- have whipped their bases into a frenzy. Their followers, armed with clubs and other weapons, have occupied a section of the capital and seized government buildings. Khan and Qadri claim that the movements are peaceful sit-ins; they are anything but. And they are after nothing less than the resignation of the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

These events no doubt dismay analysts who happily proclaimed the return of democracy in Pakistan and the death knell of military interference when, in May 2013 Sharif’s party secured a surprising majority of seats in the parliament in the general elections and peacefully took office. Pakistan, it seemed, was on the path to normalcy. So what went wrong? As usual, the answer has something to do with the military. 


Since 2008, when the last military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, left office, the army has understood that an outright coup would be neither feasible nor beneficial. For one thing, Pakistanis are still broadly opposed to military rule. For another, the army has its hands full managing a stable of Islamist militants, some of whom are its loyal proxies and some of whom have turned their guns and suicide bombs against their erstwhile patrons.

However, the army has not taken recent developments lightly. First, Pakistanis were starting to develop a taste for democratic transfers of power. Although the general election that brought Sharif to office was not pristine, it was the first time that a democratically elected administration had completed its term (although not without considerable turbulence) and handed power over to another democratically elected administration. Throughout the 1990s, the military had always cut elected officials’ tenures short. Analysts were hopeful that, as democracy became more routine, the military would have an increasingly difficult time proroguing the government and staging outright coups.

Second, it was troubling for the army that the Sharif government won a solid majority. Given this position of relative strength, Sharif sought to assert some modicum of civilian control over the country’s overgrown military, which, whether directly or indirectly, has ruled the country since its independence in 1947. He took over personal oversight of the defense and foreign affairs portfolios, which had previously been left to the military. He was vocal about pursuing better ties with India and sought to expand economic and other ties with the army’s eastern nemesis. And Sharif spoke of abandoning the age-old strategy of manipulating Afghanistan to obtain “strategic depth” against India. He also promised to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban, which has savaged the country for over a decade. The army, for its own reasons, wanted to launch a selective operation against the group in Pakistan’s North Waziristan area.

These transgressions alone would have been enough to rile the army chief and his commanders. But there was another insult: Sharif has insisted on trying Musharraf for treason. The courts could point to two instances. The first was in 1999, when Musharraf launched a military coup and ousted Sharif from government. The second was in 2007, when Musharraf suspended the constitution. Sharif has demanded that Musharraf be tried only for the 2007 offense. The generals well understand that a case against their former leader will put them all on trial.


So why doesn’t the military do what it has historically done best and simply declare military rule?

First, unlike in the 1990s, the army no longer has legal methods for interfering in politics. In those years, the army could bring down administrations through a constitutional provision that Pakistan’s third military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, had introduced in 1985. In effect, the amendment turned Pakistan’s parliamentary democratic system, which featured a strong prime minister and a titular president, on its head. The amendment, known as 58(2)(b), granted the president (Zia at the time) sweeping powers, including the ability to dissolve the national and provincial assemblies, which he did. 

Democracy returned in 1988, but with 58(2)(b) still on the books the army was able to prevail upon the president three times to dismiss elected governments. The only exception was during Sharif’s second term. Sharif was able to repeal 58(2)(b) in 1997. But the respite was brief: the military staged an outright coup in 1999. The new leader, Musharraf, reinstated the amendment, and it remained in place until 2010, when President Asif Ali Zardari, who was elected in 2008 when Musharraf decided to permit elections, signed the Eighteenth Amendment and returned Pakistan to a more traditional parliamentary democracy. Lacking its old legal lever, the army has had to develop new ways of bringing democracy to heel.

Second, data suggest that Pakistanis still prefer inept politicians to direct military rule. In 2012, my colleagues Jacob N. Shapiro and Neil Malhotra fielded a nationally representative survey of 16,279 Pakistanis. It found that 80 percent thought that it was extremely or very important to live in a county with elected representatives. Most important, even now, no groups are calling for the army to intervene.

In other words, to have a hand in politics, the military would need an electable civilian front man. And that is its third problem. It hasn’t had an alternative to Sharif -- at least not so far. Although Khan may have been an army hopeful when he launched his “tsunami” election campaign in 2010, he has proved to be erratic, truculent, irresponsible, and anything but statesmanlike.

Without the legal methods of the 1990s and suitable replacement, the army had to develop new tools to curb democracy. Soon after Musharraf’s departure, the military tried to fill that gap by simply allying with Pakistan’s Supreme Court. Its chief justice at the time, Iftikar Chaudhury, harbored deep antipathy for Zardari. The roots of that enmity go back to 2008, when Zardari opposed Chaudhury’s reinstatement after Musharraf ousted him in March 2007. Zardari feared that the chief justice would overturn an agreement that Musharraf had inked with Zardari’s late wife, Benazir Bhutto, in 2007. That agreement, called the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), suspended all charges of corruption against politicians in Bhutto’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), allowing them to contest elections. Bhutto would have become prime minister and Musharraf would have stayed on as president. The NRO did not extend amnesty to the PPP’s main rival, Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). This scheme fell apart when Bhutto was killed in a suicide attack in December 2007, and many believed Musharraf or his government to be responsible. However, the NRO did pave the way for the PPP, then run by Bhutto’s widower, Zardari, to win the 2008 elections. 

Chaudhury was reinstated only after the PML-N launched massive protests against the PPP. Eventually, the months-long impasse was resolved when the army chief at the time, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, persuaded Zardari to reinstate the chief justice. And once reinstated, Chaudhury did, indeed, void the NRO and ordered the government to reinstate all pending cases against Zardari and other PPP politicians. These reinstated cases helped undermine the PPP government; the court pushed out Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in 2012 and threatened to do the same with his successor, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf. 

To this day, the courts remain tools with which the generals can clip democracy’s wings. Yet the current supreme court justice, Nasir-ul-Mulk, has shown no appetite (at least yet) for the activism of Chaudhury. Enter the recent round of protests. We may never know decisively whether Qadri or Khan has had direct contact with the military. To manipulate domestic affairs, the military operates through its intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). The ISI uses proxies, money, threats, and murder to secure the army’s preferred policies. Whether the ISI and its proxies paved the way for the escalating confrontation or whether the protestors-cum-rebels did so of their own volition, the outcome is the same: violent and deadly clashes between the unlawful protesters and the security forces. 

In June, police opened fire on Qadri’s supporters in Lahore’s posh neighborhood of Model Town. Even though such brutality is the responsibility of the police officers in question, Qadri and Khan insist upon holding Sharif, his brother (Shahbaz Sharif, the province’s chief minister), and other federal ministers accountable. Ironically, the police have even filed charges against the Sharif brothers as well as 21 others who it alleges were involved in the Model Town incident. These and future looming legal challenges will hamstring this government just as legal challenges crippled the previous one. No doubt as the confrontation between the government and the rabble-rousers continue, such charges will continue to mount. Even if the evidence to convict anyone is scant or nonexistent, given the lethargy of Pakistan’s justice system, it will take years and even decades for these charges to be cleared. 


Unfortunately for Sharif specifically, and democracy more generally, the army has already won.

The prime minister has had no choice but to use police to push back what he rightfully calls a rebellion. (If the protesters were as peaceful as Khan and Qadri argue, after all, they would not be storming government buildings by the thousands, armed with batons and clubs with their faces covered.) Yet even if Sharif is right to use force -- and even though any excesses should be blamed on the police, not him -- the cases will cripple his government. 

There is very little that Sharif could do now to contain the injuries that the army and its two marionettes -- Qadri and Khan -- have already inflicted. He could resign and appoint another PML-N office holder to the prime minister position, as Zardari did when Gilani was forced to resign. Such a move would weaken the office of the prime minister -- a dangerous prospect given Pakistan’s already weak institutions -- but preserve a PML-N government. Or Sharif could dissolve the government and secure another mandate from the people through a snap election. But that would be the ultimate concession to army-backed street thuggery, and it would be expensive. And unless Khan wins more seats than he did in 2013, he may again call foul.

Most likely, Sharif will survive this blow, but only if he stands down in his confrontation with the army. He will have to give up on peace with India and Afghanistan. He will have to acquiesce to the army’s preferences in handling the veritable zoo of militants it has created, harbored, and deployed. He will have to find some way of letting Musharraf escape the treason conviction that the former army chief so rightly deserves. 

There is evidence that Sharif is ready to acquiesce. On August 27, reports suggested that Sharif was close to sealing a deal with the army. Then, on August 28, the army announced that it would intervene to resolve the impasse. Although the Sharif government claimed that it had requested the army’s assistance, others suspect that the army is acting on its own by summoning Khan and Qadri and by having the temerity to tell its political boss how best to manage the escalating confrontation without violence. Either way, the intervention indicated that Sharif has either tacitly or actively accepted the military’s interference in politics. 

Still, if Sharif has learned anything over his decades of political maneuvering, it is how to live to fight another day. Pakistan’s elected officials understand this and have supported him, even if they are disappointed that he may have invited the army to play the role of umpire it so enjoys. However, Sharif likely understands that if his government can limp its way to the 2018 elections, the army will have won its battle by weakening the civilian government. But it will not have won its endless war on Pakistan’s anemic democracy. 

In the end, though, it will be up to Pakistanis to come to terms with the fact that supporting the civilian government need not imply support for Sharif nor acceptance of his administration’s numerous shortcomings. Democracy and the leaders it produces improve through practice. Rallying behind the army-backed street antics of a sore loser, whose party won only 30 seats in parliament in the last election, and a non-electable Canadian will not improve the quality of governance in Pakistan. For some of Pakistan’s impatient youth, this may be a pill too bitter to swallow.

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