In sharp contrast to the triumphant arrival of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad just over a year ago to lead Pakistan, the latest turn of political events across the south Asian country continues to unravel Sharif’s ruling structure while throwing the future of his carefully constructed empire in tatters.
In brief, that’s the broad outcome of the latest opposition protests in Islamabad led by legendary cricket star turned politician, Imran Khan, and Islamic scholar-cum-politician Tahirul Qadri. Though the two men are not formal allies, they have indeed rallied together for the common cause of removing Sharif from power.
Khan is seeking the installation of an interim regime that oversees sweeping reforms to fix what he describes as a fundamentally flawed electoral system. Qadri is pressing for a revolutionary change in Pakistan which will dismantle the existing political system and replace it with a new order that he says will give more opportunities of representation to the middle class and the poor.
In the past few days, thousands of supporters led by the two men have converged upon Islamabad and camped out to back their demands. The two men have threatened to stay the course until such time that their demands are met. Across Pakistan, images transported through an increasingly robust network of private TV channels, have provided a vivid view to average homes of emerging events in the capital city.
On the other side of the divide, Sharif is showing few signs of yielding to the pressure. For the moment, close political aides of the prime minister are making it known that Sharif has no intention of stepping down.
On Saturday, the Sharif camp received a visible setback when a judge in the city of Lahore, who was assigned to investigate the killings of up to 14 of Qadri’s supporters in police shooting on June 17 this year, ordered the government to take action against those found culpable.
Reports in the Pakistani media named Shahbaz Sharif, the prime minister’s brother and Chief Minister of Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital, among those responsible. The final stage in this drama is yet to unfold. But beyond just the immediate turn of events, Pakistan’s long-term future and its recent past must also figure prominently in any assessment over the country’s outlook.
As Khan’s motorcade proceeded from Lahore to Islamabad on Friday, attacks by suspected activists of Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) not only triggered the dangerous possibility of a bloody encounter between political rivals from the two sides but also highlighted a more dangerous mindset across Pakistan’s emerging politics, most recently demonstrated by the Sharif camp. Subsequent reports named Pomi Butt, a PML-N politician in the city of Gujranwala on the route from Lahore to Islamabad, as having backed the attackers.
This follows the arrest of Gullu Butt following the June 17 attack in Lahore, after he was filmed by Pakistan’s private TV channels while smashing cars that he thought belonged to Qadri’s supporters. He was later named by Qadri’s supporters as a PML-N activist.
Suddenly, Pakistanis have woken up to the terrible reality of the inroads in the country’s politics made by violence pushing individuals and groups, beyond the malicious challenge posed by militant Taliban.
While Sharif battles what appears to be the most formidable challenge to his year long rule, his regime’s economic policies have also been badly exposed. As prime minister, he has overseen a robust push to create new road, bus and train projects.
However, Pakistan’s acute energy shortages in the shape of electricity and gas cuts continue to make life miserable for the average citizens. It is an aspect of life that haunts the country’s poorest neighbourhoods on a daily basis, and its hardly surprising that an overwhelming majority of those who have marched to Islamabad visibly represent low-income communities rather than the middle class.
In defence of Sharif, many of his supporters have chosen to downplay the protests as nothing more than a sinister conspiracy to demolish prospects for democracy in a country that has been ruled by the military for almost half of its 67 years of existence as an independent state. Tragically, that assessment may simply overlook a more complex picture that haunts Pakistan’s ruling structure today.
Even if the Khan-Qadri duo are eventually pushed back, Sharif will not rise from today’s events on a victorious note. During his year-long rule, Sharif has picked unnecessary fights with a variety of players ranging from the influential army over the prime minister’s decision to prosecute former army chief General Pervez Musharraf, to discord with different political players. The rift with Khan was triggered when Khan demanded a reassessment of votes cast in just four of the 342 seats in Pakistan’s lower house of parliament known as the national assembly. Sharif’s blatant refusal to comply with Khan’s demand has snowballed in to one of the biggest political storms in the Pakistani capital.
With the knives clearly out and openly on display and Pakistan’s political rivals lined up to fight, the days of peaceful existence in government may be over for Sharif even if he survives for the moment.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.