The political chaos in Pakistan has deepened, with the country’s embattled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif now vowing not to step down despite escalating protests against his rule. The demonstrations, which have taken place for more than two weeks, took a violent turn over the weekend, with opposition activists attacking the state television channel and taking it off air, while also attempting to march on Sharif’s residence. The Pakistani Parliament rallied around Sharif on Tuesday. Here’s what you need to know about the current crisis.
Sharif came to power for the third time in elections last year. His victory marked the first successful civilian transfer of power in Pakistan’s history. His considerable electoral mandate and peerless political pedigree — Sharif is a heavyweight in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous state — led many to believe the country could turn a corner, mend ties with India and revitalize its stagnating economy. But criticism of his government’s performance — dogged by the persistence of the country’s woeful energy shortages, among other problems — grew in the year since. Sharif’s decision to prosecute former President Pervez Musharraf angered the country’s top brass.
Opposition figures, meanwhile, launched campaigns to bring down Sharif’s government. Imran Khan, a charismatic cricket star-turned-politico who heads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has long claimed Sharif’s 2013 victory was the result of voter fraud. His party draws much of its support from Pakistan’s urban middle class, including many in Punjab, but the country’s “first past the post” system meant it won few seats in Parliament. Khan insists he was cheated of victory and seeks the dissolution of Sharif’s government and new elections.
Tahirul Qadri, a preacher who spends much of his time in Canada, has galvanized a powerful street movement back home. Anti-corruption protests led by Qadri’s followers in January 2013 paralyzed Islamabad. After police crackdowns earlier this year on Qadri and Khan’s supporters, the two called for separate marches from the city of Lahore to Islamabad in mid-August.
The scenes of violence in Islamabad have polarized the situation further. Sharif spoke defiantly about the “terrorists” seeking his ouster, while the army conspicuously warned the prime minister from cracking down on the protesters — rather than scolding the opposition forces on the streets who sought to storm his residence. The army, which does not see eye to eye with Sharif, ostensibly gains from the crisis. But it’s doubtful they have any intention of taking the reins of power.
Last week, Sharif already made concessions guaranteeing the military’s oversight over the country’s security and strategic foreign policy — the main portfolios that interest the generals. An overt takeover by the military would also risk tens of millions of dollars of American aid. And the troubles that consume Pakistan — its faltering economy, its energy crises, its brutal militant insurgencies — remain very much unresolved. Qadri and Khan both issued statements condemning mob violence, but dismissed charges of undermining the country’s democracy. It doesn’t look like they’ll be backing down any time soon. Experts agree that Sharif’s bungling response to the pair’s opportunistic protests have made the crisis far more severe than it needed to be.
The instability in Islamabad has implications for the region. It puts the prospect of a meaningful thaw in relations with India, headed by new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, back on ice.As Kabul’s own dysfunctional political leadership prepares for life after the withdrawal of US forces, the last thing it wants to see in Pakistan is the retreat of civilian authority.
Courtesy the Associated Press
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