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Pakistan protest turns violent

Shamil Shams/pfdAugust 29, 2014

Pakistani police have clashed with thousands of demonstrators marching on the official residence of the prime minister. The protesters are demanding that the premier step down over alleged voter fraud.

Mindestens 50 Verletzte bei Protesten in Pakistan
Image: Reuters

Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators who marched from the parliament building in the capital, Islamabad, on Saturday, headed for the official residence of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The DPA news agency quoted Islamabad police chief Khalid Khattak who said that many of the protesters were armed with axes, hammers and wire cutters.

Medical sources said more than 100 people had been injured in the clashes, with some sources putting the casualty figure as high as 300.

Police did not provide an estimate of just how many people were involved in the demonstration, but the AFP news agency put the figure at around 25,000.

'Symbolic cuop'

After two weeks of anti-government protests and demonstrations in Islamabad, the opposition leaders – cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Pakistani-Canadian cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri – have not been able to force Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign. Thousands of protesters continue to stage a sit-in outside the Islamic country's National Assembly (lower house of parliament), chanting slogans against the Premier, who they claim came to power through rigged elections.

However, political experts say that both Khan and Qadri look increasingly isolated, and there is almost no chance that PM Sharif will step down. So the question is what have the opposition leaders achieved through mass rallies which kicked off in the eastern city of Lahore – a Sharif bastion – on August 14?

Analysts say that the Pakistani military generals, which many in the Islamic republic believe are backing anti-Sharif demonstrations, have accomplished a difficult task: they tamed a popular civilian leader that has a history of acrimonious relations with their institution. The military 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, and more so on the future of the detained former military chief and ex-president, Pervez Musharraf.

Experts are of the view that one of the reasons behind Pakistani military's alleged support of the anti-government rallies is to pressure Sharif and his government, banking on his weakness to engage in political bargaining with his opponents.

Pakistani amy chieg Raheel Sharif and PM Nawaz Sharif
PM Sharif has formally requested his country's powerful army chief to resolve the crisisImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

In a report published on Wednesday, August 27, The Wall Street Journal said the Pakistani military was close to an agreement with Sharif in which "the prime minister would relinquish control of security affairs and strategic foreign policy". Abdul Agha, an Islamabad-based analyst, told DW that "Sharif has survived, but the army has cut him down to size. I would call it a symbolic coup," adding that the military did not need to intervene directly now.

"I don't think Pakistan's military has any desire to be directly saddled with the unprecedented challenges the government faces now; it much prefers to influence matters from behind the scenes. In other words, the time isn't right for the military to take over," said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, in a DW interview.

The experts are right: the military has intervened without staging a formal coup:

On Thursday, August 28, Prime Minister Sharif formally requested his country's powerful army chief, Raheel Sharif, to intervene in the protracted conflict and act as a mediator. Analysts say that the PM had no option but to surrender to the will of the army after the police in the eastern city of Lahore registered a criminal report against him and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif - who heads the government of the eastern Punjab province - in the murder case of 11 members of cleric Qadri's Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) party. The PAT activists were killed in clashes with security forces on June 17. One of the opposition demands is that the brothers are arrested for "ordering" the killings. Both Sharif and his brother deny the accusations.

A setback to democracy

Sharif took office in June 2013, after his Muslim League party won a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections. Supporters of civilian rule and democracy had hoped it would usher in a new era of stability in Pakistan. The five-year rule of former President Asif Ali Zardari had seen the power of the military gradually curtailed.

A supporter of Tahir ul-Qadri, Sufi cleric and leader of political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) ,reacts as she listens to her leader's speech in front of the Parliament house building during the Revolution March in Islamabad August 28, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)
Many Pakistanis - frustrated with lawlessness, unemployment, frequent power outages and inflation in the country - are hoping for changeImage: Reuters

But experts fear that the two-week long protests against the 15-month-old government could bring the army back in the driving seat. "I don't know who the winner will be, but the real danger is that democratic norms and institutions could become its biggest casualty," Aqil Shah, Pakistan expert and visiting professor in the department of Government at Dartmouth College, told DW.

"By baying for the blood of the elected government, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf's (Khan's political party) actions threaten the country's first democratic transition marked by the transfer of power from an elected government, which had completed its full term, to another," he added.

Peace with India

Before the start of the protests, there were also signs that Sharif was determined to take the foreign policy and defense matters under his control, which have traditionally been a military domain.

In May, Sharif travelled to India to attend the inauguration ceremony of Indian Premier Narendra Modi in an unprecedented diplomatic move. His one-on-one meeting with Modi raised hopes that the two South Asian countries could finally bury the hatchet and live in peace.

But things have changed over the last few weeks. Sharif has been too busy negotiating with political rivals in order to save his government and is least bothered about ties with India or what is happening on the disputed border of Kashmir – a region that both Islamabad and New Delhi claim in its entirety.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shakes hands with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif before the start of their bilateral meeting in New Delhi May 27, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)
There were high hopes for the improvement of bilateral relations between India and PakistanImage: Reuters

Last week, Indian and Pakistani soldiers traded gunfire across the Kashmir border, killing two civilians and wounding several others on each side. In an apparent blow to bilateral ties, India also canceled peace talks with Pakistan after Islamabad met with Kashmiri separatists. Earlier this month, PM Modi had accused Pakistan of engaging in "the proxy war of terrorism" in the Himalayan region.

"There is far too much internal turmoil in Pakistan to enable PM Sharif to make any credible commitment to India (on peace talks)," Sumit Ganguly, India expert and professor of Political Science at the Indiana University Bloomington, told DW.

Sarah Hees, Resident Representative of the German foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in India, is of the same view: "The general public attention in Pakistan lies on the protests and the government's response, whereas India's cancelation of peace talks made only minor headlines in Pakistani media. Nevertheless, it might further strengthen the conservative voices in times of already tense civil-military relations in Pakistan."