Protests in Pakistan could shake prime minister’s mandate

Why street power is particularly effective in the country.

Supporters of religious and political party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) wave flags and chant slogans during what participants call Azadi March (Freedom March) to protest the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad, Pakistan November 2, 2019. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro - RC14C39D0790
Editor's note:

Though street protests in Pakistan may weaken the civilian government, the military remains unharmed, write Madiha Afzal. This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post.

Protesters in Pakistan continue demonstrating into their third week, first demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan and then calling for new elections. What began as a large-scale caravan into Karachi and led to a 13-day sit-in in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, is now moving to other parts of the country, where the protesters plan to block major roads and highways.

The opposition protest is led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who heads the political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F). Leaders of Pakistan’s major opposition parties have pledged their support, although they did not join the Islamabad sit-in.

This protest is the first significant political challenge Khan has faced a little more than a year after his election. In Pakistan, where democracy remains weak, such a challenge can prove destabilizing to a government.

What do the protesters want?

Protesters allege that Pakistan’s 2018 election was rigged. Although there is consensus that the pre-election environment in 2018 was more or less set up (by the military establishment) to favor Khan’s party, independent evaluations have shown that the election itself was not more problematic than previous elections, and Khan’s mandate across the country is hard to deny, especially in terms of his support among Pakistan’s youth.

Second, protesters cite the poor state of the economy under Khan’s government. Economic growth has slowed in Pakistan over the past year, while inflation has skyrocketed. At the same time, the government is trying to widen the country’s almost nonexistent tax net — as a result, ordinary Pakistanis are suffering.

Finally, Rehman harbors personal resentment against Khan: He lost his parliamentary seat in the 2018 election to a politician from Khan’s party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice, and considers the party a threat to the popularity of his own JUI-F in the conservative province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Rehman also highlights wider political victimization by Khan, especially in the jailing of leading opposition politicians, including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and former president Asif Ali Zardari, on charges of corruption. (Khan came to power on an anti-corruption platform, and he maintains that he is merely holding opposition leaders accountable.) Rehman also alleges the government is run by a “Jewish lobby” — Khan’s former wife, Jemima Goldsmith, is Jewish — and that Islam is under attack in Khan’s administration.

The political parties involved

The JUI-F is one of Pakistan’s two relatively large Islamist parties. Islamist parties perform badly electorally in Pakistan, collectively garnering a handful of seats in successive elections. An alliance of Islamist parties including the JUI-F won 13 out of 272 National Assembly seats in 2018.

When Khan’s party won Pakistan’s 2018 general election, it upended decades of power-switching (during periods of democratic rule, that is) between the country’s two political parties that have historically been the largest, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Leaders from both joined the Nov. 1 rally to kick off the protest in Islamabad. Their support is necessary for Rehman’s political relevance.

Both parties have formed alliances with Rehman in the past, too. This is the way of Pakistani politics, where Islamists are key partners for all manner of mainstream, even secular, parties because of two things they offer: street power; and coalition seats in the National Assembly, where winning parties often have only weak majorities.

Protests in Pakistan, Islamists and the military

The Islamists’ ability to mobilize street power makes them useful in exerting pressure against sitting governments in Pakistan, and both civilian opposition parties and the military have historically used this ability. This locks in a cycle that uses protests to undermine successive democratic governments. In the 1970s, for example, an alliance of opposition parties that included Islamists and secular parties led enormous protests against the government, weakening it significantly, and setting the stage for a military coup. This time, Rehman has been able to bring thousands of marchers to the streets via the religious schools associated with his party.

But Islamists alone do not lead protests: In 2014, then in the opposition, Khan led a huge months-long sit-in against Sharif’s government, alleging rigging in the 2013 election. That protest was thought to have the military’s support at the time; it weakened Sharif significantly.

Looking ahead

The army’s position is unclear this time. It has issued multiple statements, claiming political neutrality and support for Pakistan’s elected governments. But it is understood that protests do not move forward in Pakistan without at least the military’s tacit approval. Khan was the military’s favored choice to be prime minister last year, and he has repeatedly said in the past year that he and the army are on the same page on policy. It’s difficult to fathom why the army would want Khan out, as it does not want to run the government directly; but having Khan on weak footing while he remains in power would benefit the military, because it would give it the long-coveted upper hand on policy.

Protesters’ numbers dwindled somewhat over the past week as the impasse between Rehman and the government continued, and his moving the protest movement to other parts of the country this week acknowledges his initial failure in Islamabad.

But Khan also appears to have made a significant political concession this week by considering allowing Sharif, who had been imprisoned over corruption charges, to travel abroad for medical treatment. Khan has said he will never give his political opponents amnesty or allow them to leave the country and go into exile, as has been the case in the past. Allowing Sharif to travel for treatment is probably a consequence of the pressure Khan has felt from these protests. That, along with a once again politically relevant Rehman, a threatened but for now resilient Khan and an unscathed army appear to be the short-term outcomes of this protest movement. While the long-term outcomes remain to be seen, it is clear that the cycle of weakening civilian governments through protests continues in Pakistan, while one institution — the military — remains unharmed.