The ongoing political crisis in Pakistan is hurting the country's economy. The nuclear-armed nation's powerful army is concerned, and so is the West. A greater turmoil could become unmanageable for everyone.
Not many people in Pakistan expected the anti-government protests to last this long: 19 days and counting. The protesters, who claim that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to power through rigged elections, have one key demand: the premier must resign from his post.
Sharif and his ministers had hoped the demonstrations would die down, or that the opposition leaders – cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Pakistani-Canadian Sunni cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri – would eventually compromise and end the sit-in outside the parliament building in the capital Islamabad. None of that happened. The protests turned violent, the Islamic Republic's powerful military chief, Raheel Sharif, stepped in as a mediator, and a number of other political groups joined Khan and Qadri in demanding Sharif's ouster.
Experts fear that things are getting out of control in the country. Hundreds of protesters briefly seized the state broadcaster, Pakistan Television (PTV), on Monday, thus intensifying the political crisis. The army was called in to disperse the violent demonstrators. The security forces managed to regain control of the PTV building after few hours.
Over the weekend, Pakistani police clashed with thousands of demonstrators marching on the official residence of the prime minister. At least three people were killed and hundreds wounded when the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at Khan's and Qadri's supporters.
The ongoing violence prompted the top generals of the nuclear-armed state to hold an emergency meeting on Sunday, August 31. The army – which has directly ruled the nation for more than three decades collectively – voiced support for democracy, but also "expressed concern."
Pakistani military – back in charge
But many people in the country think the army's "concern" is part of the script that the generals have written themselves. Pro-democracy activists believe Khan and Qadri have the full backing of the army, which is wary of Sharif's cordial moves towards the country's regional arch-rival India. The PM and the army are also not on the same page over the Islamic Republic's Afghanistan policy, nor on the future of Pervez Musharraf, former military chief and ex-president, who is currently detained.
The military, which has been in control of the country for most of its recent history, enjoyed limited power during the five years former President Asif Ali Zardari was in office. The generals fear that if Sharif remains in power, they may further loose grip on the country's defense and foreign policy.
But the protests against the incumbent government, which came into power after winning a landslide victory in the May 2013 general elections, have put the army back in the driving seat.
"It seems that history is repeating itself in Pakistan," Siegfried O' Wolf, a South Asia expert at Heidelberg University, told DW. "There is a possibility that the military could once again use the so-called 'doctrine of necessity' to intervene in the political process. However, this does not mean there will be a direct takeover, but the army will definitely curtail the civilian government's decision-making power," he added.
On August 14, thousands of anti-government protesters began a march from Lahore to Islamabad, aiming to topple PM Sharif's government
Arshad Mahmood, an Islamabad-based social activist, is critical of the army's role in the conflict. "It is the military's constitutional responsibility to support the elected government. The statement that the generals issued after Sunday's meeting encouraged the protesters. I think the army definitely wants big changes in the government, if not a coup."
Ali K. Chishti, a security analyst in Karachi, also thinks the chances of a direct military coup are quite low: "The military does not like PM Sharif and his government's attempts to assert the civilian authority, but at the same time it is skeptical of both Khan and Qadri and their leadership skills. So, will the military topple the government? I think it will find a middle way," the expert told DW.
But some say the military has already cut Sharif down to his size. Abdul Agha, an Islamabad-based analyst, told DW that "I would call it a symbolic coup," adding that the military did not need to intervene directly now.
Is it up to Sharif now?
The pressure is on the prime minister now. The political impasse is hurting the country's already weak economy. Should the PM resign to end the crisis and let an interim government hold fresh elections?
"Nawaz Sharif is head of an elected government. An extra-constitutional and enforced resignation would have an extremely negative impact on the future of democracy in Pakistan," O' Wolf said.
Chishti says no one in Pakistan resigns voluntarily. "PM Sharif remains adamant that he won't stand down, and from what I know of him, it would really be an extraordinary situation that would force him to leave office."
But activists like Mahmood believe that Sharif should hold his ground and not surrender to the opposition's blackmailing. "If he is forcefully removed, the world will see how the popular mandate of an elected government was violated by a handful of people."
West is concerned
Western nations have been cautiously watching the crisis in the Islamic state. They have so far not directly commented on the turmoil. But to say that they are not concerned about the future of an unstable nuclear-armed Islamic state would be naïve. Islamist groups, including the Taliban and al Qaeda, have been weakened after a decade-long western operation in neighboring Afghanistan, but the militants are still strong in Pakistan and have safe havens in the country's semi-governed northwestern areas. A bigger chaos in the country could become unmanageable not only for the Pakistani state but also for the international community.
"European governments would most likely not intervene in Pakistan's domestic political issues, however, the difficulties in the context of the US-Afghan bilateral security agreement might force Washington to draw decisive attention on the happenings in Islamabad," believes O' Wolf.