Foreign Policy Blogs

When a Revolution is Undemocratic

Growing Rift

Pakistan Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif & Prime Minister Nawaaz Sharif – Growing Apart

It’s been said that “every country has an army, Pakistan’s Army has a country.” It’s a young republic at 67 years old, but it’s formidable military has never shied from seizing political power. Having spent several decades under martial law, last year’s elections were welcomed as ushering a new era of democracy with Asif Zardari and Nawaaz Sharif marking the first ever transfer of power between two civilian, democratically elected leaders. It was a proud moment for a social media savvy country increasingly aware of the value of free and fair representation as the Arab Spring spreads across the Middle East and neighboring Indians participate in the world’s most populous democracy. Well aware of the democratic mood, the military has been wise to refrain from being overtly involved in policymaking but it is no secret that there is a growing rift between Prime Minister Sharif and the generals. And when a civilian leader does not accommodate the military establishment in Pakistan, it rarely ends well well for democratic processes.

PTI Leader Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri

Imran Khan and Tahir Ul Qadri – Strange Bedfellows

In comes former cricketing hero, philanthropist turned politician Imran Khan and religious cleric Tahir ul Qadri who engage this opportunity to exploit tension between the executive branch and military and take to the streets in antigovernment protests, which  have turned violent this weekend. After nearly 13 years of campaigning, Khan finally won a enough seats to form a government in the northern, demographically conservative province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last year by running on a dramatic platform of right wing, anti-Drone rhetoric and promising to “end corruption in 19 days” He is a favorite among the countries “Burger Class,” vernacular for Pakistan’s equivalent of our privileged one percent and was able to inspire them to vote in what many say was unmatched turn out of that demographic. But his appeal to the larger popular mindset is undeniable, especially amongst the country’s youth. Having led Pakistan to its only Cricket World Cup Championship and founding multiple charity organizations, including the first and only cancer hospital in the country, people have faith that he  possesses both the leadership and trustworthiness to bring them out of the doldrums.

Despite finally gaining political authority as a member of Parliament, Imran Khan has abandoned his elected position and invested himself in leading protests to the capital in hopes of gaining a larger prize. He is demanding the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Sharif on the grounds of massive election fraud. Independent international observers have found no evidence to support allegations of large scale rigging, but this hasn’t stopped Imran Khan from leading 25-60 thousand people from camping out at the capital, effectively shutting down schools and businesses for 14 days and counting in a mounting standoff which many fear could result in yet another case of military control. In fact, there is speculation that a covert military intervention by way of a “soft coup” may have already occurred.

Still, the sit-in at Islamabad has escalated from protests outside Parliament to a threatened occupation of the building and Prime Ministers house as people storm the gates and attempt to break into government premises. Police are using tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters as the country waits for the military’s move. Meanwhile, Imran Khan and Qadri remain adamant; they have called for additional protests across the country as Khan threatens to “jam Pakistan” in further turmoil.

Unfortunately, this is a self imposed revolution and has little to do with democracy. While Khan and Qadri have a vocal following and legitimate concerns about reforming the electoral process, Nawaaz Sharif had already agreed to a judicial commission to audit election results and the formation of an election reforms committee which would be headed by Khans party, Pakistan Tehreek e-Insaaf (PTI). Further, because even a re-count of votes is unlikely to give Khan enough seats to form a majority, some consider his non-negotiable demands for Sharif’s resignation a power grab.

Qadri is a cleric with moderate religious views making him a rare breed of Imam (Islamic leader) in Pakistan who commands a loyal following. But he is without parliamentary representation or any real candidacy in politics yet. Imran Khan’s celebrity status and “Burger” support make for fabulous print and and television media but the fact remains, most Pakistani’s are rural, or urban poor without the luxury of time to protest for weeks on end and they vote for their local candidates who are most likely to deliver basic needs including water, gas, and and electricity.

But in Pakistan, when the upper middle classes who are so accustomed to extravagance and authority atop a grossly stratified society finally turn out for elections and their will is not upheld, outrage ensues and there are protests to overhaul a democratically elected Prime Minister. And this, does not a revolution make.

Imran Khan should have upheld democracy by representing those who voted him in as a member of the National Assembly, worked to deliver on promises of curbing corruption and agitated within government to bring forth change. By abandoning his electorate and taking to the streets to contest a position he was not voted to represent, Khan is exploiting peoples dissatisfaction with an imperfect government and conflating that with his presumed right to rule. PTI has yet to develop a strategy that can deliver on the dramatic promises Imran Khan made last year so strengthening his party and institutions ought to be the democratic route of priority. With Qadri and Khan urging an overreaction from the government, Nawaaz Sharif’s violent crackdown may very likely cost him his Prime Ministership.  Many argue that Khan is the sole leader Pakistan needs right now, and while that could be true, one can not both support his actions and whole heartedly support democracy at the same time.




Zainab Jeewanjee

Zainab Jeewanjee is a graduate of the Denver University's Korbel School of International Service, where she received a Masters of International Relations with a concentration in U.S. Foreign & Security Policy. Her area of focus is U.S. - Pakistan relations and she completed a senior thesis entitled U.S. Foreign Policy to Pakistan: History of of Bilateral Cooperation from Partition Through the Cold War as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University. Zainab is also sales director at Silicon Valley based Follow her on Twitter @Zainyjee