calls his supporters junoonis — or “crazies”….The military might enjoy
the troubles Khan gives the prime minister, but
it is unlikely to tie its institutional fortunes to Khan....Pakistani democracy continue to muddle
along as it has in the past. Pakistan optimists will be disappointed….But things could
The American establishment and its paid interlocutors (not meant in a derogatory sense) have now responded to the soft coup in Pakistan. Short answer: after observing what happened in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, the focus is back to stability over anarchy. Shorter answer: “but things could be worse.”
We are not sure why the veil of modesty is required though. The whole world and his uncle knows now that Nawaz Sharif is finished. In Pakistan (just like in Egypt and in Thailand) it is clear that Army rule (as the most trusted institution) is preferred over mob rule (politicians are hated for cronyism, inefficiency,…).
One of the primary reasons for Army putting down Sharif is that he desired better relations with India (and acted on it by not meeting with Kashmiri separatists/nationalists). In this way Kashmir is shown up as the third rail of Pakistani politics, you touch it, you die.
We are not sure what lessons India will need to learn from this, but the reality is there is no constituency (apart from the poor in both countries) that will benefit from a peace dividend. For now the best solution is status quo on the border and cold peace across South Asia. While “but things could be worse” may be true…..things could have been much better.
A silver lining amongst this mess: Indonesia. It is a pure miracle when poor countries also choose to be democratic. Indonesia has followed Thailand (ten years ago) in electing a populist to the top chair. We sincerely hope that it does not follow Thailand by deposing the government when things become too uncomfortable for the elites.
1960, president and field marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator,
built the city of Islamabad almost from scratch. Pakistan’s original capital, Karachi,
was roughly 800 miles away from his headquarters in Rawalpindi, and Ayub Khan — as
the story goes — wanted to reduce his commute in order to more easily serve the
requirements of both his military office and the presidency of Pakistan. In relatively
short order, Rawalpindi had a new twin city and Pakistan had a new capital. Instead
of flying from one office to the next, Ayub Khan could now walk, jog, or drive.
That little slice
of Pakistania illustrates the most important rule of the decades-long contest between
Pakistan’s unruly civilian democrats and its unconstitutional military rulers: When
the Army wants something, it gets it.
Since Aug. 14, Islamabad
has been in a state of constant uncertainty and insecurity. Politicians opposed
to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have been leading a sit-in of thousands of
protesters demanding nothing less than the resignation of Sharif — who has
been prime minister twice before and deposed in coups both times.
Today in Pakistan,
there are two big questions: Is the military attempting to stage-manage Sharif’s
third exit? And is his political tormentor, the temperamental former cricket
star Imran Khan (unrelated to Ayub Khan), the Army’s choice as his replacement?
Two separate camps
are conducting the Islamabad protests against Sharif: Khan leads one,
and Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, an anti-Taliban cleric formerly based in
Canada, leads the other. The
two leaders are a study in contrasts, but they share one explicit
objective — to
Pakistani fatigue with the saga has been growing, and on
of Aug. 28, the Army became explicitly
involved as a guarantor of
talks between the opposition camps and the government. The announcement of the Army’s
role as the adult in the room is nothing new for Pakistan, and though
expectations are that the crisis is petering out, protests could continue as
long as Sharif stays in power.
Where did this
mess begin? The 2013 elections brought Sharif back to power for a third term and
saw Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice),
emerge as a major force in politics. Khan’s complaints that Sharif stole the
election received little attention until Qadri entered the picture. A colorful
cleric with a superb network of philanthropic activities and a politically
insignificant but deeply committed corps of disciples, Qadri has a history of
agitating against democratically elected governments.
When Qadri announced his decision to return in June from his adopted home in Canada to Lahore
to launch yet another agitation, alarm bells went off for Sharif.
On June 17, things
took a tragic turn. Already exercised by the 100 degree-plus Fahrenheit heat and
smarting at the way senior leaders within Sharif’s government had spoken of
Qadri, supporters of the cleric clashed with police in Lahore’s tony Model
Town neighborhood. Fourteen people died, including a teenager and at least two
women, with much of the blame for the violence placed
squarely on police
brutality. The Model Town tragedy galvanized Qadri’s supporters and stripped
Sharif of whatever moral high ground he had. The shifting national mood after the
affair buoyed the opposition’s spirits, and Khan could smell blood.
In July, Khan announced his decision to march on Islamabad — with the
objective of ousting Sharif — on Aug. 14, Pakistan’s Independence Day. On Aug.
10, Qadri announced that he would march on Islamabad as well. The
processions to Islamabad received wall-to-wall coverage from Pakistani media,
with some questioning whether the size and diversity of the protesters deserved
such lavish 24-hour exposure. As it has dragged on across two weeks,
the crisis has developed a momentum of its own. Khan has planted himself and
several thousand protesters in front of the Pakistani parliament building, insisting that he
will leave only when Sharif resigns.
Few, if any
Pakistanis, would argue against the substance of Khan’s complaints — that the
electoral process needs major reforms and that corruption throttles the
economy. Instead, most debate focuses on just why Khan is so confident that he
will succeed in dethroning Sharif — despite the prime minister’s nationwide support and Khan’s falling stock.
Khan’s bravado is,
on the surface, perplexing. His level of popular support has dropped significantly since the May 2013 election, and his
performance since then has been pedestrian, at best. His speeches at these
protests have been cavalier, even vulgar: He threatened to send his enemies to the Taliban so that the group could
“deal with them,” according to the New
York Times. He denigrates parliament and the prime minister; in one speech,
he proudly proclaimed that the fear of protesters has caused
Sharif to “wet his pants.” This is hardly the kind of leader whom soldiers from any
country would want to call boss — much less the ultraconservative ranks of
the Pakistan Army.
kind of confidence only comes from the knowledge of having the support of
Pakistan’s military brass. Could it really be betting the house on Khan?
Probably not. Pakistan’s
military faces a hostile India on its eastern border and a dysfunctional peace
process in Afghanistan on its northwestern one. In between, it is trying to
stamp out the remarkably resilient and potent Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, also
known as the Pakistani Taliban, against which it recently launched a massive operation
in the remote Pakistani region of Waziristan. Now is not a good time for the Army to manage a chaotic political
Sharif would probably complicate the country’s fiscal situation. Pakistan is a
poor country with an even poorer record of fiscal management. Outside aid is
vital to the country — be it from the IMF and World
Bank or from friendly nations like the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia.
International lenders hate instability and coups, and they have a long-standing
man-crush on Sharif and his team because they are the big-business,
Barbarians-at-the-Gate-type capitalists who love to privatize things while
disproportionately taxing the poor instead of the rich. Khan, on the other hand,
is a wild man when it comes to economic policy. Just this week, he instructed Pakistanis living abroad to stop using
legal means of sending home remittances and once again start using the hundi
system — the preferred cash-mobility solution for
Ishaq Dar, who unsurprisingly is a close relative of Sharif, is surprisingly
good at what he does: managing exchange rates, borrowing cheaply, and stamping
out dissenting views on the economy. While growth is still sluggish, Dar has convinced
lenders that Pakistan is becoming a less risky investment. Bureaucrats
from the World Bank and IMF love him because he is an old-school chartered
accountant. Sharif loves him because he is family. And though the Army may not
love him, they probably like Dar a lot more than they like the prospect of
dealing with Khan’s cuckoo ideas about how to get remittances to Pakistani
Many in the armed
forces think Sharif is being needlessly vindictive in pursuing legal cases
against Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the former chief of army staff who seized power from
Sharif in October 1999, imprisoning Sharif and later exiling him to Saudi Arabia. Now Sharif is
pursuing a case against Musharraf, who is stuck
in Pakistan, unable to leave
because of a court injunction related to a treason case against him — though Sharif’s
people insist the motivation is rule of law and not revenge.
overtures to India, especially to its newly elected Hindu nationalist
prime minister, Narendra Modi, may make some of the generals deeply
nervous. Sharif accepted Modi’s invitation to his inauguration,
and in a break from Pakistani tradition, Sharif did not meet with separatist leaders
from Kashmir whom Pakistan supports. If Pakistan and India become normal
neighbors, the military’s influence in Pakistan automatically decreases. The
hawks clearly won’t go easily.
But the fears of
Sharif improving relations with New Delhi too quickly have likely been assuaged by
the rank incompetence with which he implements decisions. Even if he wanted to, Sharif cannot move
any faster than a bored glacier on a cold day. He is hamstrung by an obsession with
surrounding himself with loyal but inept advisors and bureaucrats.
severely undermined his own rule. His shambolic treatment of his own party
members, to say nothing of the opposition, is legendary — often ministers
can’t get meetings for weeks on end. The presence of his family members in
government grates all segments of Pakistani society: Dar’s son is married to Sharif’s
daughter, Asma Nawaz. Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif is his younger
brother; Water and Power Minister Chaudhry Abid Sher Ali is his nephew, as is prominent
Hamza Shahbaz Sharif. If only his strategic vision for the country were as
consistent as his nepotism.
On the other hand,
the best thing Sharif has going for him is the quality of his competition.
Pakistan with Khan at the helm would be a disaster of epic proportions — and
that’s even with the country’s extremely high tolerance for shambolic
Khan may be the
world’s oldest teenager, with a captive national audience. He thumbs his nose
at political niceties and employs an invective that dumbs down the discourse.
Like Justin Bieber, Khan focuses on electrifying the urban youth who genuinely
believe him to be a messianic solution to the disenchantment they feel about
their country. And Khan’s understanding of Pakistan’s problems is probably only
slightly more sophisticated than Bieber’s. Khan does not have the policy chops
to fix what ails Pakistan: The crux of his efforts during these few weeks has
been that he, not Sharif, should be prime minister.
Sharif is a known
entity and one easy to tame. Khan is wild and unpredictable. He proudly calls his supporters junoonis — or “crazies.” The military might enjoy the troubles Khan gives the prime minister, but
it is unlikely to tie its institutional fortunes to unstable and irresponsible
political actors like Khan. Pakistani democracy under Sharif will continue to muddle
along as it has in the past. Pakistan optimists will be disappointed, because
this crisis is unquestionably a setback for democrats. But things could be
worse. For now, the most Khan is likely to achieve in challenging Sharif is
further strengthening the military’s already strong hold on key decisions
guiding the country’s future.
As Americans watch
in horror as Syria, Libya, and Iraq come apart, perhaps they will warm to the idea
of a Pakistan managed by its highly disciplined and professional armed forces. That
would be exactly the wrong conclusion to draw from the political chaos in
Pakistan. Now more than ever, Pakistan needs the rest of the world to reiterate
its strong support for democracy.