Underrepresented by Western media, political tensions have been growing in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, as citizens move to their third week of protests. Ever since the 2018 election of current Prime Minister, Imran Khan, people have been unhappy about the election results. They allege that the election was rigged. There seems to be consensus around the country that the election was set up by the military to favor Khan. However, much like elections go in some developing countries, the 2018 elections did not seem any more problematic to outsiders than the elections that have been taking place for years. Furthermore, Khan has seemed to receive unprecedented support from the country’s youth and his mandate is hard to deny. Therefore, there seem to be additional disturbing factors for the people of Pakistan about Khan’s election.
The protest is being led by the head of the opposition political party, Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) party. Leaders of Pakistan’s other opposition parties have seemingly pledged their support but have not participated in the protest. The protest started as a mass caravan in Karachi which has now become a 13-day sit-in in Islamabad. Protestors claim that their dissatisfaction stems from Pakistan’s recent economic decline. They cite the slowdown of economic growth and skyrocketing inflation in the country as their main source of distrust in the government. They also do not support the government’s attempt to widen the country’s tax net. There also exist personal tensions between Rehman and Khan. In the 2018 elections, Rehman lost his parliamentary seat to a member of Khan’s party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice. This party is a threat to JUI-F’s popularity. Rehman can be seen as disguising his personal resentment for Khan by stating the wide political victimization by Khan. He talks about how Khan imprisoned the leaders of opposition political parties including the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the charges of corruption. Rehman also uses religious ideology to gain support for his protest by alleging Khan of “Jewish lobbying”. Since Khan’s former wife is Jewish, Rehman claims that Pakistan, a majority Islamic country, is under attack by Jewism under Khan’s administration.
This is the first time Khan has faced such a challenge. For a weak democracy like Pakistan, such protests can be highly destabilizing. In the 1970s, a similar protest led by opposition political parties led to the significant weakening of the administration and set the stage for a military coup. Even in 2014, Khan himself led a huge months-long sit-in against Sharif’s regime over the allegations that the 2013 elections were rigged. This protest resulted in the significant weakening of Sharif’s administration. Therefore, there can be similar results of the protests being led today, which can weaken the country’s internal as well as external sovereignty. With the current disparities between Pakistani and Indian governments, this wide-scale protest can leave Pakistan vulnerable to a coup. In a country like Pakistan, it is implicit that such protests do not occur without the military’s approval. However, their position remains unclear as they continue to release statements of neutrality and support for Khan. This week, Rehman has moved the protest to another part of the country. The number of protestors has fallen as well. This can potentially be seen as a failure by Rehman to gain support in the capital. However, it could also be a tactic on his part. Given the fact that Khan, who has been adamant about his position to never allow political opponents amnesty, allowed Sharif to travel abroad for medical treatment can be seen as a move made by Khan under pressure by this political protest.
The long-term effect and the result of this protest remain unclear. However, it seems clear that political protests have been taking place in Pakistan for a long time. One could view this as a potential flaw in Pakistan’s democratic institutions. For example, the consequent unfair elections. This can be seen as a characteristic of a weak state. The mistrust in government amongst the people, and the heavy political influence of the military echo the foundation of an authoritarian regime. If left uncorrected this can lead to large scale implications for Pakistan’s economy and political relationship with other countries. For instance, for every day that people continue to protest, the country faces an opportunity cost of foregone output lost from employment. This can even affect their international trade with other countries who might refuse to trade with Pakistan on the grounds of human rights infringement. Furthermore, the level of destabilization continues to rise for Pakistan as the protests continue. The current government has to focus on stabilizing internal sovereignty rather than focusing on growth and development that may hinder the country’s progress.
A possible resolution to the ongoing political tensions could be a political coalition between the two political parties. By delegating positions in Pakistan’s congress, the government may be able to form a more stable, diverse administration. This coalition government may receive more popular support which can help them gain legitimacy and maintain overall sovereignty. Given the current characteristics of Pakistan, it meets the minimalist definition of democracy and the state could focus on the more efficient provision of political goods. Pakistan is also receiving a good amount of aid from Western countries and could allocate it to provide these political goods to uplift their economy. However, the question remains whether, over the years, the protests against unfair elections in Pakistan are actually due to mistrust by the people or rage by the opposition as a means to undermine the regime’s legitimacy?
- Afzal, Madiha. “Analysis | Protests in Pakistan Could Shake Prime Minister’s Mandate.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 15 Nov. 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/11/15/huge-protests-pakistan-could-shake-prime-minister-khans-mandate/.
- Afzal, Madiha. “Protests in Pakistan Could Shake Prime Minister’s Mandate.” Brookings, Brookings, 15 Nov. 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/11/18/protests-in-pakistan-could-shake-prime-ministers-mandate/.
- “Pakistan Army Says Supports Elected Government amid Major Protest.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 2 Nov. 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-politics-protests/pakistan-army-says-supports-elected-government-amid-major-protest-idUSKBN1XC064.