By Zeeshan Salahuddin
The status quo in Pakistan is changing. Whether it is the relationship between the general public and the politicians in power, or the nebulous dynamics of the civil-military relations, it is shifting, and at the forefront of this change is Imran Khan, a former cricketer turned politician turned self-proclaimed revolutionary.
Since August 14, 2014, the 67th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence, Khan has staged a protest in the federal capital of Islamabad, right outside the Parliament. His protest is supported by political workers and voters of his party, the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), and bolstered by members of Minhaj-ul-Quran, an organization run by firebrand Canadian cleric and populist preacher Tahir-ul-Qadri.
Khan has three demands. First, he decries alleged widespread rigging in the May 2013 elections, the country’s first civilian-to-civilian handover of power. He demands re-polling and an independent investigation: The elections were swept by Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), placing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the driving seat for a record third time in the country’s history. Second, he demands sweeping electoral reforms in the country. Third, and perhaps most maximally, Khan claims that Sharif must resign.
Khan does have a legitimate political mandate, supported by 7.9 million voters. PTI emerged in May 2013 with the second largest number of popular votes. However, the rigging claim is mitigated by several independent international observers who argue that for the most part the elections were free and fair. The stance on electoral reforms is largely viewed as a positive move by lawmakers and political pundits on both sides of the aisle. However, his sacrosanct stance toward the prime minister has earned him the ire of politicians, journalists, and even his own supporters. There is no legal or constitutional basis for demanding that the prime minister, who has unequivocally stated that he will not step down, resign. Sources indicated to AFP that all matters have been settled during the negotiations between the two sides, except the resignation demand.
It has been 43 days since the protest began. The prolonged demonstration has frayed nerves in political corridors of power, resulted in violent and deadly clashes between protestors and the police, and galvanized coordinated sit-ins in major cities across the country. The status quo has been challenged across multiple spectrums, and that is, generally speaking, a good thing.
First, there is a marked rise in public disapproval of political maneuvers, failure to deliver basics, and a fervent rejection of the elitist culture that accompanies the highly dynastic politics in Pakistan. Thousands have taken to the streets in the federal capital, and in most provincial capitals, to show solidarity with Khan and his mandate. A recent amateur video documented passengers aboard a domestic flight banding together to offload a sitting Member National Assembly Dr. Ramesh Vankwani and the former Interior Minister Rehman Malik, for allegedly delaying the flight by well over two hours.
Additional videos of people engaging in civil disobedience at toll booths have also surfaced on social media. Despite 40 days, the sit-in only seemed to pick up steam this past weekend, as Khan briefly left his barracks in Islamabad to address a large crowd in Karachi. The public ire with the political system is palpable, and despite some unrealistic and unconstitutional demands by Khan, his campaign has kicked off a chain reaction that has the potential to forever alter the political landscape in Pakistan.
Perhaps, more importantly, the biggest change has been observed in the country’s civil-military relations. In 67 years of Pakistani history, there have been three successful military coups d’états. The resulting dictatorships have cumulatively ruled the country for nearly half of its existence. In the first days of the sit-in, there were several reports indicating that the powerful military in the country was unhappy with the situation, and historically, that bodes ill for those in power. News broke in the first week of September that several ranking generals wanted to overthrow the government, but were reined in by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif.
Despite these protests, the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), the public relations wing of the military, has repeatedly denied all allegations of their involvement in the standoff, incessantly iterating that they are not a political entity and do not meddle in civil affairs. This is a remarkable shift from yesteryear, where the political turmoil in the country would be enough to warrant a military takeover. This also signifies the superficial depoliticization of the military, as well as the united political front in the country that actively resists military intervention into civilian matters.
Of course, this does not mean the military is taking a backseat to politics. On the contrary, the COAS was appointed as an intermediary to help resolve the crisis between the two sides, and thus the military will continue to engage in politicking. However, there is a marked shift toward civilian rule, a welcome reprieve for a country all too familiar with military dictatorship.
And so Khan’s fight rages on. He has raised several key issues, which require immediate political attention, including that of electoral reform. Though his mass mobilization may seem like an act of despair, it has undoubtedly put pressure on Parliament and lawmakers to reconsider how democracy functions in Pakistan.
Zeeshan Salahuddin is a journalist based in Pakistan.