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'Sharif weakened'

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezOctober 27, 2014

For months, thousands of protesters thronged Pakistan's capital demanding that the government resign amid vote-rigging claims. But while Nawaz Sharif held on to power, he is now a weakened PM, says Michael Kugelman.

Pakistan Demonstration Imran Khan 16. August
Image: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

For 65 days, anti-government protesters staged a massive sit-in in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. At the peak of the movement - led by former cricket star Imran Khan and cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri - some 70,000 people were demanding that the government of democratically-elected PM Nawaz Sharif step down amid accusations of incompetence and rigging last year's parliamentary vote.

For months, the protesters camped out in front of the parliament building, after being led by Qadri and opposition leader Khan from the eastern city of Lahore to the capital on August 14 - Pakistan's Independence Day. There were clashes with the police as protesters ransacked the state television headquarters, causing a temporary lapse in transmission. On August 30 the demonstrators burst through security barricades and clashed with security forces outside parliament. The authorities responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Three people were killed in the melee and hundreds were injured.

But the attempt to overthrow the government failed. Qadri officially ended his sit-in in Islamabad on October 21, and while Khan's supporters remain camped out, it is unclear what political impact this will have. However, Michael Kugelman, Pakistan analyst at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says in a DW interview that the movement already got what it wanted by weakening and discrediting the Sharif-led government.

DW: Is the protest movement basically over now that Qadri ended his sit-in?

Michael Kugelman: For all intents and purposes this game has been over for a number of weeks, when the protest leaders got their wish for a weakened and discredited government. The anti-government movement has repeatedly said it intends to bring down the government, but in reality its leaders will be satisfied that it has been weakened, even if it remains in power.

Michael Kugelman
Kugelman: 'It's not as easy now as it was decades ago to remove governments in Pakistan'Image: C. David Owen Hawxhurst / WWICS

Why did the movement ultimately fail to overthrow the government?

There are various reasons. One is the stubbornness of the government, and particularly Prime Minister Sharif, which refused to back down. Another factor is the Pakistani security establishment, which did not - perhaps contrary to the views of many anti-government protestors, including the leaders themselves - pressure the government to step down. It's not as easy now as it was decades ago to remove governments in Pakistan.

There are stronger legal obstacles, and the military simply has no stomach for seizing power once again. So what we had, in the end, was heightened expectations from the protestors coupled with more subdued sentiments from the security establishment. The upshot? The government, though weakened, was able to pull through and survive.

How important was the fact that the entire parliament decided to support Sharif?

This was one of the little-reported "good" stories from the anti-protest movement, for which coverage has otherwise largely revolved around how the military was able to cut the government down to size. In this case, we had a victory for democracy in that different parliamentary parties rallied around Sharif in a show of force against extrajudicial efforts to bring down the government.

The ironic thing, of course, is that Sharif himself has never shown much appreciation for the parliament himself - even during the height of the protests; he rarely appeared in the legislature.

What was unique about these protests?

In many ways these were part of an ongoing story that materializes repeatedly in Pakistani history - one characterized by efforts, likely orchestrated to some extent by the security establishment, to mobilize the masses on the street to pressure the government.

What was different this time was that democratization has progressed significantly, with the notion of a coup never really taken seriously - even when the protests briefly became violent several weeks back. What was also different - in a good way - was how there was a strong diversity of protestors, and particularly many women. This is something many commentators took note of.

On the other hand, though, these protests were really quite farcical. You had a purported peoples' movement to bring about large-scale change that was likely guided, to some extent, by the Pakistani security establishment. Even when the protestors stopped coming out in Islamabad, Khan and Qadri continued to make blustery and frequently bizarre speeches - to a crowd characterized more by empty chairs than screaming partisans.

How come did the army decide not to intervene or take power? Did Sharif pay a political price for this?

The army's days of coups are over - for now. It is very concerned about its global image - not just because of its sponsorship of militants, which is an old story, but because its veneer of invincibility has been shattered by militant attacks on military bases and by the discovery of Osama Bin Laden living in Pakistan.

Launching a coup would not exactly bolster its image. Also, things are so bad in Pakistan now that the army simply has no desire to be burdened by such matters. This could change one day, but for now, I don't think we need to worry about coups.

Pakistan Proteste gegen die Regierung Tahir ul-Qadri Islamabad
'We can expect Qadri to soon return to his home in Canada and wait for the next opportunity to come back to Pakistan to cause trouble for the government'Image: Reuters

Could the fact that the government was not overthrown be regarded as a victory for democracy in Pakistan?

Absolutely. If this had happened decades ago, during periods of weak civilian rule, then the government would likely have been gone like clockwork. That the government has survived is, in some ways, a testimony to deepening democratization. At the same time, however, the fact that a civilian government elected on a huge mandate has now become a shell of its former self is a big setback for democracy.

What impact did the protests have on Pakistan politics?

In some ways, not too much has changed. The military has always been the most important political player in Pakistani politics, and now its omnipotence has only become more entrenched. As always, the military - by brokering talks and by putting itself in position to benefit from the protests - was right in the middle of everything, exploiting the situation for maximum advantage.

There are some notable consequences. One is that Sharif, who seemed so strong when elected by a huge margin last year, is a weakened figure. The military, by mediating between recalcitrant sides with a seemingly steady hand, has perhaps regained some of its trust from a wary population. Meanwhile, Imran Khan may have lost support.

Many of his partisans were turned off by his often-raving speeches, and by how long he drew out his protest. Yes, he continues to be able to mobilize people on the streets, as he's done at several marches around Pakistan in recent weeks. But he likely damaged his future electoral prospects, which arguably reached a high water mark during the 2013 election.

Oppositionsdemonstration in Pakistan
Kugelman: 'Khan will return to what he does best: bringing people out on the streets"Image: SS MIRZA/AFP/Getty Images

Did the protests achieve anything in terms of launching an investigation into vote rigging?

The ruling party has claimed it will take some sort of action. However, it has been vague, and it's unclear what will happen. Presumably, though, Qadri had enough assurance that the government would act in that he decided to halt his protest.

Where are Qadri and Kahn expected to go from here?

Khan will return to what he does best - bringing people out on the streets. And meanwhile, we can assume that he'll continue to position himself for Pakistan's next elections. One thing he likely won't do is seek introspection. He will likely be full speed ahead. Such is his nature.

As for Qadri, he claims he will be expanding his "revolution" across the country, and he may well launch more protests as Khan will. Still, if the past is precedent, we can expect Qadri to soon return to his home in Canada - and wait for the next opportunity to come back to Pakistan to cause trouble for the Pakistani government.

Michael Kugelman is senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.