1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Sharif's fate on the line

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezAugust 15, 2014

Thousands of Pakistani protesters have converged on Islamabad to pressure the government to resign. But as analyst Aqil Shah tells DW, the biggest casualty of the mass rally could be democratic norms and institutions.

Pakistani soldiers ride in a vehicle as they patrol in a 'red zone' area of Islamabad on August 13, 2014, ahead of the country independence day and proposed protest marches by opposition parties against government (Photo: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

Clashes broke out on Friday, August 15, as tens of thousands of protesters, led in two anti-government convoys, are set to converge on the capital for a massive rally aimed at forcing the Sharif-led administration to resign. Famous cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and firebrand cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri are leading the separate protest marches.

According to media reports, gunshots hit Khan's vehicle of as he led his supporters through the eastern city of Gujranwala. The opposition leader was not injured but residents brandishing ruling-party posters attacked his convoy, throwing shoes and stones.

The opposition politicians challenge the government over allegations of incompetence and rigging last year's parliamentary vote. Sharif came to power in 2013 in the first democratic transfer of power in a country which has seen three coups since gaining independence in 1947.

Aqil Shah, Pakistan expert and visiting professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College, says in a DW interview that the opposition parties have yet to provide any credible evidence for claims of fraud, and that by baying for the blood of the elected government, their actions threaten Pakistan's first democratic transition.

DW: How long do you reckon the protests will last?

Aqil Shah: It is hard to definitively predict the length of these protests. This will depend on whether the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party and the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) - or Movement for Justice - led by Imran Khan can find a negotiated way out of this needless crisis.

Aqil Shah
Shah: 'The protests will only reinforce Pakistan's image as a fragile nuclear-armed state that is unable to put its own house in order'Image: privat

Khan, as well as the cleric Qadri, who is leading a parallel protest march, have shown little flexibility and continue to insist on removing the government. Much will also depend on whether the ruling party and its challengers can keep the protests peaceful. There are already reports of minor clashes between the two sides in the PML-N stronghold of Gujranwala. Violence can beget more violence, but at least at the moment there is no sign of things spiraling out of control.

How big do you reckon the protest will be?

These are not mass protests, at least not yet. The PTI has a strong following amongst urban youth, especially in the eastern Punjab and the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. So the mainstay of the protest is likely to be its energetic party cadres and other die hard supporters. But contrary to Khan's claim of marching on the capital with a million people, the actual number of his followers on the road so far is less than 20,000, according to media reports.

What do you make of Qadri's demands for less corruption, accountability and reform of the electoral system?

All of these are obviously worthy goals but Qadri's methods and aims are patently anti-democratic. He wants to force the democratically elected government out by a "revolution." A Canadian national who lives in his adopted country for much of the year, he has little credibility or mass support in the country. However, he is a spoiler with ties to the military who loudly vilifies politicians as corrupt and makes no effort of even hiding his support for a military intervention in politics as the solution.

How can the opposition justify the demands for PM Sharif to resign given that Sharif is a democratically elected prime minister?

Both Qadri and Khan allege that Sharif's government came to power through a fraudulent election. Hence, they see it as an illegitimate government that has no right to rule. Khan and the PTI are particularly aggrieved because they think that the rigging was designed to deprive them of a victory.

While electoral fraud is not unusual in transitional contexts, they have yet to provide any credible evidence for these claims. Instead, what we have is a litany of unproven allegations against everyone under the sun, including the interim government, the judiciary, the election commission, and even the US, Israel and India.

Sharif has offered to form a judicially inquiry commission to investigate the PTI's allegations, but Khan remains adamant that an impartial inquiry is possible only after Sharif resigns. To me, Khan's sound and fury looks like a cynical attempt for a crack at power regardless of its consequences for democracy.

What role is the country's powerful military playing?

When the army is not in power, it pulls the strings behind the scenes. Tensions between the army and the government have been festering over several issues, including Sharif's decision to try former army chief and president, Pervez Musharraf, for treason. No coup-maker has ever been held accountable for his actions, so the impeding trial poses a direct challenge to the military's presumptions of impunity.

As for Sharif's future, the military has the power to decide the ultimate fate of any government. So yes, the military's reaction will be a key factor in determining his survival especially if there is prolonged violence on the streets.

Who do you reckon will come out of this situation as the winner?

I don't know who the winner will be, but the real danger is that democratic norms and institutions could become its biggest casualty. Let's suppose Khan gets his way, the government steps down, and his party wins the next election. Why would the losers of the next round not contest the legitimacy of the vote?

By baying for the blood of the elected government, the PTI's actions threaten Pakistan's first democratic transition marked by the transfer of power from an elected government, which had completed its full term to another.

That turnover had symbolic value for breaking Pakistan's enduring authoritarian trap. But the next essential step towards democratic consolidation is at least one more peaceful alternation in power, which would show both an elite allegiance to the rules of the game and the people's commitment to using the ballot to register their dissatisfaction with the government.

Could a prolonged confrontation between Khan, Qadri and the Sharif-led government lead to a military coup?

Sustained and violent protests could provide the military with the opportunity to intervene. But I don't think the generals' first choice would be a blunt coup right now - and there is little appetite in Pakistan for another military government - mainly because they have the power to get what they want without assuming direct responsibility for government.

Supporters of cricketer-turned-opposition politician Imran Khan take part in the Freedom March in Gujranwala August 15, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)
The real danger is that democratic norms and institutions could become the biggest casualty, says ShahImage: Reuters

When politicians challenge its prerogatives, it can rely on its allies in political parties, the media and even Islamist militant groups to contest their authority. Many observers suspect that this opposition protest is a practical demonstration of these tactics.

What impact is this political turmoil having on the country both nationally and internationally?

For one, instability can undermine the democratic process by making the civilian government appear incapable of providing basic political order, which can ultimately dents its legitimacy. Business confidence in the country's struggling economy could slump even further, in addition to the direct adverse impact of political unrest on the country's economic life.

On the external front, I think it will only reinforce Pakistan's image as a fragile nuclear-armed state that is unable to put its own house in order, and therefore, cannot tackle challenges like terrorism that are of serious concern to the international community.

Aqil Shah is visiting professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College and author of "The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan" (Harvard University Press, 2014).You can follow him on Twitter @AqilShah_.