No one comes out of the political crisis in Islamabad looking clean.
Despite their less-than-expected numbers, the not-perfectly-peaceful twin protests ongoing in Islamabad since Aug. 14 by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which alleges widespread rigging in last year’s general elections, and cleric Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek, which wants a brand new constitutional order, have gripped the country and presented the toughest challenge yet to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s rule.
At press time, both the kabuki of negotiations between opposition parties working on behalf of the government and the PTI-PAT combine was continuing as was the stormy joint session of Pakistan’s National Assembly and Senate. Khan and Qadri are refusing to budge from one key demand: the permanent or temporary resignation of Sharif. The protest leaders have said they will spend the rest of their days in their respective RVs outside Parliament until this happens. The government, which has cross-party support in Parliament, is refusing to blink.
So what happens now?
Addressing the joint session of Parliament on Sept. 2, Sen. Aitzaz Ahsan of the Pakistan Peoples Party agreed that there is weight in what PTI and PAT have to say about electoral fraud, reforms, and corruption. But he worried that succumbing to the demands of the mob amassed outside would set a dangerous precedent and other groups, militants even, could congregate similarly in future to press their own peculiar demands.
Except that terrorists, of course, are not ones for sit-ins and, together, PTI and PAT are no random mob. The PTI secured the second highest number of votes in the 2013 elections and won power in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Khan has political legitimacy, but by virtue of the same process whose sanctity he says has been shattered wholesale. PAT has no parliamentary presence, but it has moral legitimacy—thanks to Shahbaz Sharif, whose police killed 14 PAT members and shot at least 80 others in Lahore in June. The government’s instituting money-laundering and terrorism cases against Qadri have only helped his cause, at least for now. (Between them, Khan and Qadri are also facing nine police cases.)
In Parliament, Senator Ahsan also implored the Sharif government for an attitude adjustment. The Sharif administration will ride out the storm, he said, but added that he feared cabinet members would become even more arrogant and hotheaded as a result. His apprehension is well grounded. On Sept. 1, Khawaja Asif, the defense minister, specifically justified the government’s illegal detention of PTI workers, including M.P.s, by saying such things “happen in politics.”
The political polarization has also hurt the Army. On Sept. 3, Saad Rafique, the railways minister, said the protesters had vacated the lawns of Parliament hours earlier not because of the Supreme Court’s order but after a “signal” to the mob from their minders, the Army. The same night, Geo News anchor Najam Sethi, who the PTI alleges was complicit in Election Day rigging as caretaker chief minister of the Punjab, said elements within the Army—but not Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif—plotted the sit-ins with the intention of forcing the ouster of Prime Minister Sharif’s government. Many within the PMLN also believe this, especially after PTI renegade Javed Hashmi leveled similar allegations.
The Supreme Court hasn’t been spared either. Its chief justice had to issue a statement denying Hashmi’s claim—which Hashmi attributed to Khan—that he was in any way supporting the PTI chief.
Four endgame scenarios present themselves. The first has Prime Minister Sharif resigning or going on leave until an independent commission can investigate the rigging charges, which all political parties have made to varying degrees. The second envisages a nonpartisan and fast-track investigation into the charges but with Sharif remaining firmly in the saddle. The third, predicated on the not-entirely-incorrect assumption that civil-military relations have become strained, sees the dissolution of all assemblies and the formation of a government of technocrats until the next elections are allowed. The fourth sees the utter humiliation of both the PTI and PAT and a secure, smoother next four years for Sharif.
‘Go Nawaz, Go’
The maximalist demand that Prime Minister Sharif resign to allow a judicial commission to audit the 2013 elections without any pressure has been voiced as editorial policy by several cable news channels and is buoyed by the rebellion within the opposition parties arrayed behind Sharif in Parliament and the tenuous state of civil-military relations. The Sharif cabinet maintains that their Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) did not conduct the elections and thus cannot be held responsible for any alleged irregularities.
Cable news channels have shown flashes of seeming neutrality; this is perhaps more hedging-bets than immaculate analysis. The channels and talking heads supporting the “moral” call for Sharif’s resignation somehow see his hand in the bloody and gone-wrong police operation against PAT in Lahore on June 17 that was meant to put the fear of God in revolution-threatening Qadri. Some channels are, at least partly, also motivated by their blinding rivalry with the Sharif-supported and Army-loathed Geo News. (There is growing sotto voce consensus within the PMLN that the Punjab chief minister should perhaps resign over the killings but only after the Islamabad protests have died out. Even beleaguered Geo News, while defending the prime minister, has allowed for this concession.)
Political parties standing in support of Sharif during this crisis have members who aren’t entirely convinced about backing the prime minister. The PPP, which rules Sindh province, has formally come to Sharif’s aid, but its Punjab-based leaders, chafing under the memory of the PMLN’s merciless hounding of it from 2008 to 2013, have expressed sympathy for PTI and PAT. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s leader, Altaf Hussain, first miscalculated the chances of the success of the agitation and called for a military takeover, then recanted to join the anti-agitation consensus in Parliament, and then, on Sept. 3, threatened to have all his M.P.s resign from the assemblies. Jamaat-e-Islami, which governs Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in coalition with the PTI, opposes dissolution of the provincial assembly but supports the PTI’s right to protest. The old rivalries among the parties abide, but self-interest overrides them for now.
The Army’s series of statements on the political crisis have added volume to the pro-resignation chorus. On Aug. 31, following the unusual Sunday night meeting of the Corps Commanders, the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations agency said the Army viewed the “existing political crisis and the violent turn it has taken, resulting in large-scale injuries and loss of lives” with “serious concern.” It said that “further use of force will only aggravate the problem” and “once again reiterated that the situation should be resolved politically without wasting any time and without recourse to violent means.” It also said that, “while reaffirming support to democracy,” the Army also remained “committed to playing its part in ensuring security of the state and will never fall short of meeting national aspirations.”
ISPR’s statement, which disallowed the use of any further force against the crowds, served then to embolden the protesters, who briefly took over the headquarters of state broadcaster PTV on Sept. 1. So far, police action in Islamabad has claimed the lives of three PAT workers and left 607 other protesters injured. But the protesters have not been Gandhian; they have attacked and brutalized police personnel.
It has been widely reported that Prime Minister Sharif and General Sharif fell out over former Army chief and president Pervez Musharraf’s treason trial, the government’s siding with Geo News, and the government’s positions on India, Afghanistan, and the Pakistani Taliban. Since the Army is already deployed in the capital to protect state buildings, the ISPR statement of Aug. 31 totally excluding use of force was overwhelmingly interpreted as the Army’s refusal to defend the government against the agitation.
The Constitution only allows for the removal of the prime minister through a no-confidence motion. Since the PMLN has a majority in the National Assembly and the support of other parties, he’s safe. But Khan and Qadri are adamant Sharif has lost legitimacy and must go. Sharif is equally insistent that he will not. So the protest leaders have shown “flexibility” by offering another extra-constitutional palliative: Sharif should go on leave.
This scenario fluctuates in its practicability with the vicissitudes of the agitation itself. The agitation feeds off three factors and, in turn, the three factors feed off the intensity of the agitation. One: the stance of the Army, which is perceived as being offended with the government. Two: the stance of the opposition parties in Parliament. Three: the media wars.
Leave of Logic
Khan and Qadri hope that the prime minister’s going on leave will reheat tensions within the PMLN and fray Sharif’s steely grip on the party that bears his name. This is a climb-down from their maximalist position and fits neatly with their more vacuous demands, including Khan’s unheeded call for civil disobedience by using illegal banking channels and not paying taxes. If Sharif does go on leave, his party will remain in power—and united.
Khan’s own party, with its zestful but fainter-hearted* crowds in Islamabad, is, by his own admission, unraveling. Its members in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Assembly have refused to resign, as have also at least three of its National Assembly members. PTI’s president, Hashmi, has gone rogue and alleged that Khan regularly boasted about having support from the Army and ISI for the purpose of ousting the federal government. On Geo News on Sept. 3, PTI Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s estranged brother alleged that Qureshi defected from the PPP to the PTI after meeting with some generals in Dubai and was plotting to replace Khan as the party’s chief.
Hashmi’s allegations in particular have steeled the resolve of political leaders who have been at the end of the Army’s stick in the past to throw their lot in with Prime Minister Sharif. Former president Asif Ali Zardari, whose tensions with the Army led to his hospitalization in Dubai, leads this group, which also includes members of the Awami National Party and representatives from Balochistan. The MQM, which has been in and out of favor with the Army, tends to be changeable in its stance to the constitutional status of the government in power.
Sharif’s case for staying put is also supported by statements on the crisis from foreign governments, including the U.S. and EU.
Packing It All Up
According even to conspiracy-crying PTI renegades like Hashmi, any direct Army takeover was never in the works. After his revelations and similar ones by others, the Army is in retreat—despite the provocation of thunderous speeches in Parliament. The “Army is an apolitical institution and has expressed its unequivocal support for democracy on numerous occasions,” ISPR said on Sept. 1. “It is unfortunate that the Army is dragged into such controversies. [The] integrity and unity of the Army is its strength, which it upholds with pride.”
After the prime minister’s meeting with the Army chief the same day, ISPR denied breaking-news reports claiming that General Sharif had asked Prime Minister Sharif to resign or go on leave as “baseless.” (In fact, according to a party source, the general said that he served at the pleasure of the prime minister and would resign if asked.)
Any indirect change of government at this point may also have become impossible. Here’s how Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English-language daily, responded to ISPR’s Aug. 31 statement asking the government to engage the protest leaders: The “veneer of neutrality that the Army leadership had constructed through much of the national political crisis instigated by Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri has been torn apart. First, came the Army’s statement on Sunday [advising non-use of force and engagement], the third in a series of statements in recent days on the political crisis, which quite astonishingly elevated the legitimacy and credibility of the demands of Khan, Qadri and their violent protesters above that of the choices and actions of an elected government dealing with a political crisis.”
The import of ISPR’s Aug. 31 statement wasn’t lost on the hapless police manning Islamabad either. Unable to respond to the mob and seeing the deployed Army troops simply standing by, several police personnel—Khan claims the number to be “741”—have put in requests to be transferred from the scene.
The Army is facing the heat because of the alleged doings of its former officers. According to some reports, Ejaz Shah, a former Army brigadier and former chief of the Intelligence Bureau, may allegedly have been involved in planning the sit-ins alongside, allegedly, Shuja Pasha, the former chief of the ISI.
Renegade Hashmi has made a number of damning but unverifiable claims about Shah without offering any evidence. He alleges that Shah rebuked Khan and Qadri for not gathering enough agitators in Islamabad to trigger “Army action,” that Shah wanted the protests to start and end within August, despite protests from Khan and Qadri that August would be too hot for the crowds, and that Shah reprimanded the protest leaders for not getting the mob to attack Parliament. Hashmi also claims that several retired Army officers who regularly appear as analysts on TV are lined up behind the anti-democracy “conspiracy.”
Allegations against Shah are routine. After the discovery and killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad by U.S. forces three years ago, Ziauddin Butt, a former ISI chief, alleged that Shah was the conduit between bin Laden and the Army. Shah has denied this. Butt, who was named Army chief after Prime Minister Sharif unsuccessfully tried to sack Musharraf on Oct. 12, 1999, quickly recanted this statement because of its serious nature.
Former spy chief Pasha is also no stranger to bad press. His involvement in the fortunes of the PTI has previously been alleged by Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, now the interior minister. And while Pasha was in office, the media did not shy from suggesting that the anti-PPP sentiment being articulated by the menacing Defense of Pakistan Council was actually mouthing his beliefs and protesting in the streets at his behest.
The thinking of some of the parties that were part of the Defense of Pakistan Council may be less visible but no less decisive for the Army during the current political crisis. “Nonstate actors” of South Punjab have come out against the rising phenomenon of “heretic” Qadri and the “song and dance” gatherings of Khan. Since these radical groups boast their own militias, their opposition to the PTI and PAT sit-ins cannot be ignored.
Khan will be a bigger loser than Qadri, who may still be able to count on the steadfastness of his flock for future sit-ins, if the federal government succeeds in frustrating the twin protests. Time is on the government’s side. It has offered Khan an out by apparently accepting five of his six demands. Khan can retreat, work with all political parties to reform the electoral system, and put his best foot forward in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. He has perhaps cut the Sharif government down to size; and this could prove beneficial for the survival of the state as more modest but meaningful behavioral change is made possible through restrictive lawmaking. But Khan is not backing down. He says he won’t go home without the prime minister’s permanent or temporary resignation. Qadri has said the same.
Unless the government arrives at some sort of livable political settlement with Khan and Qadri, the sit-ins look set to continue, sapped during the day and swelling in the evening. Of course, if the government uses force to dislodge the protesters, as some ministers have threatened and some non-PMLN lawmakers demand, all bets are off. The fate of the unfolding crisis in Islamabad may then finally and expectedly have to be decided by the Army, still the true power in Pakistan.
*Editor’s Note: The print version of this piece describes the PTI crowd as “fair-weather.” This is not accurate, and the description has been changed here.
From our Sept. 6-13, 2014, issue.