The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Pakistan’s political crisis matters

Pakistani supporters of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Canadian cleric Tahir ul Qadri beat a riot policeman during an anti-government protest in Islamabad on Sept. 1, 2014.(Aamir Quresihi/AFP/Getty Images)
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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.

All the while, signs point once more to the Pakistani military's meddling with the country's fledgling democracy, which seems in perennial crisis in this nuclear-armed South Asian nation. Here's what you need to know about the current crisis.

The players

Sharif, as discussed by WorldViews here, 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, the general who ousted Sharif in a coup in 1999, 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 Movement for Justice party (also known by its Urdu acronym, 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 (not many agree with him) and seeks the dissolution of Sharif's government and new elections.

Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Sufi 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 separate movements dovetailed and led to a heavy-handed, panicked response from Sharif that has convinced many observers that his days are numbered. Some spy the hand of the military behind Khan and Qadri's campaigns, claims that have been reinforced by recent comments made by a former Khan ally who believes the crisis amounts to a "soft coup."

The issues

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 about ordering any further crackdowns on the protesters — rather than scolding the opposition forces on the streets who sought to storm his residence.

Ultimately, the crisis is about the inability of Pakistan's civilian leaders to build an inclusive, functioning democracy that is capable of weathering its political divisions. As Raza Rumi, a noted Pakistani journalist and commentator, told me last month, there's also a deep-seated frustration in the country with its tired status quo. "There's a growing discontent among a rapidly-urbanizing Pakistan where expectations are high and old style politics of dynasties, bureaucratic management are viewed with suspicion," he said.

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 fully 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.

What's next

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.

If it survives, Sharif's government will be an enfeebled entity, hamstrung by its opponents and dominated by the military. The instability in Islamabad has wider 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.

And it raises new questions about the insurgencies in Pakistan's midst. Khan is known for his sympathy for elements of the Taliban as well as his heated rhetoric against the American war on terror and its use of drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas.

While the Pakistani military has launched a concerted campaign against the Pakistani Taliban, it has long had a complicated relationship with the militants on the other side of the border in Afghanistan. Historically, the Pakistani military, which helped create the Afghan Taliban, considered these fighters as "strategic depth" against the competing interests of India, Iran and other regional players.

As Kabul's own dysfunctional political leadership prepares for life after the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the last thing it wants to see in Pakistan is the retreat of civilian authority and the reassertion of the army's influence.