Two months of slow-burning protests and rallies against Pakistan’s ruling party finally erupted in violence last weekend in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, a normally quiet city with a heavy security presence.
Near midnight on Saturday, anti-government demonstrators rammed their way through the gates of the Parliament House using crude tools and a truck. They were met with tear gas, rubber bullets and baton-wielding riot police. More than 500 people were injured that first night, including dozens of police officers. At least three protesters died, according to authorities.
Now, the ruling party and the demonstrators, led by a sports legend and a firebrand cleric, are at a stand-off, with concerns over a possible intervention by Pakistan’s military lingering in the background as the situation deteriorates.
The roots of the crisis began in May 2013, when Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) party (PML-N) took over from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in Pakistan’s first-ever democratic transition of power. But the victory of Sharif was met with allegations of voter fraud and rigging by opposition leader Imran Khan, a former cricket superstar and chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the losing party in those elections.
Little external evidence backs up his claims of a rigged vote, but Khan tapped into a deep well of popular resentment against the establishment politics of Sharif’s PML-N. Sharif served two prior stints as prime minister in the 1990s before being ousted in a 1999 military coup, and many in the country were dissatisfied with his return to power almost 15 years later. Khan began calling publicly for Sharif’s resignation earlier this year, calling for Pakistanis to protest against the PML-N government and threatening a "tsunami" of popular demonstrations if Sharif did not step down.
Soon, Khan had an ally: a charismatic populist cleric named Tahir-ul-Qadri, who, after spending the last decade in Canada, arrived in Pakistan in June preaching revolution. Qadri, a Sufi Muslim scholar known for his firebrand speeches and fatwas rejecting terrorism, renewed his opposition to Sharif’s government after police opened fire on demonstrators from his Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) in June, killing 14, including several women. After that incident, Qadri began calling for a complete clear-out of the current government and the installation of a new political system.
Khan and Qadri’s convergence was once extremely unlikely -- PTI spokesperson Shireen Mazari once accused Qadri of being an American agent -- but a common enemy has brought their considerable camps together. Tens of thousands of protesters (up to 30,000 by some accounts) were in the streets of Islamabad demanding that Prime Minister Sharif resign from office.
In a nation of 196 million people, though, even 30,000 is a relatively small number. Sharif’s government and many analysts claim that Qadri and Khan’s demands are unconstitutional, having gone through no legal channels. Worse still, critics say, such a resignation could establish a troubling precedent for future leaders: if 30,000 passionate demonstrators can topple a democratically elected official, they ask, what will happen the next time a leader encounters resistance?
Parliament, which is firmly under the control of Sharif’s ruling PML-N party, recently reiterated its support for his government in the face of so-called "anti-democratic" demands, and the judiciary has also dismissed Qadri and Khan’s protests as undemocratic.
Finally, the entire situation is complicated by the hand of the Pakistan Army, Sharif's former (and perhaps future) bogeyman. Historically, Pakistani politics has been constantly framed by a rivalry between the military and civilian government for ultimate power in the nation, including its nuclear arsenal, and the military has taken control of the government on three different occasions in Pakistan’s history, most recently in 1999 when Gen. Pervez Musharraf ousted Sharif in a coup.
Many observers suspect military involvement in the convergence of Khan and Qadri’s camps, especially after Army Chief Raheel Sharif told the prime minister to negotiate with the protesters and not use force. Recent comments by former PTI president and ex-Khan ally Javed Hashmi added fuel to those speculations, as Hashmi accused Khan of plotting with the Army to remove Prime Minister Sharif. Khan has vehemently denied those accusations, and the Army has continued to state that it is neutral in the conflict.
So the stand-off, which has carried on over weeks of fiery rhetoric from Khan and Qadri’s camps and stubborn rejection by Sharif’s government, came to a head Saturday night. Protesters for PTI and PAT steadily streamed into the streets of Islamabad, camping out in front of the Parliament House and the prime minister’s residence. When protesters used a truck to force their way onto the Parliament grounds, they clashed violently with police tasked with the defense of government buildings.
Clashes and protests continued into Monday, when hundreds of protesters forced the state broadcaster off-air after storming their studios. Sharif convened a joint session of Parliament today to address the crisis.
Now, the nation waits as opposition politicians meet with Khan and Qadri to negotiate an end to the demonstrations. But each additional day of conflict takes the country closer to the threat of a military takeover in the event of destabilization. And even if the military does not execute a full takeover as it did in 1999, it may seek greater control of the country's foreign affairs at the expense of the civilian government's authority.
That civilian-military rivalry, which has colored much of Pakistan’s history and its relationship with the United States, may be entering a new chapter.