Pakistan’s capital city has been paralyzed for the last two weeks by tens of thousands of protesters led by cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan and outspoken cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, who are demanding the resignation of the prime minister and his government.
Police estimate 40,000 – 50,000 protesters are camped in the city’s "red zone," which houses parliament, the prime minister’s house, and the Supreme Court. The federal government has deployed the military to ensure law and order, but the situation remains tense. Mr. Khan and Mr. Qadri have made repeated threats of violence against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his ministers.
The government is calling for dialogue with both leaders of the protests. As of yet, there has been no headway. In his first address to parliament since the protests in Islamabad began, Mr. Sharif today vowed not to resign. “Those who will try to derail democracy and constitution will be held accountable,” he said.
Who is Imran Khan and what does he want?
Khan and Qadri lead two separate protest movements, which are descending on Islamabad at the same time and with similar goals. Khan is demanding Sharif's resignation on the basis of alleged vote rigging of the May 2013 election. Qadri is calling for the dissolution of the government and all provincial assemblies.
Khan became a national hero after leading Pakistan’s cricket team to its first World Cup victory in 1992. His Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) political party rose to prominence in 2013 elections, when it captured a large urban and youth vote, and became the third largest party in parliament. His party also won in majority in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province next to the Afghanistan border, where he currently runs the provincial government.
Khan alleges that Sharif rigged the May 2013 election – the first democratic transition of power in this nuclear-armed country of 180 million. Most independent observers called the election clean.
On Pakistan’s Independence Day, Aug. 14, Khan launched what he called a "million man march" from Lahore to Islamabad in a bid to pressure the government to cede to his demands. About ten thousand people joined the march. Since then, all of the members of parliament from his party resigned from the National Assembly in protest. He continues to run the provincial government in KP.
The government is willing to negotiate with Khan on all his demands except for the resignation of the prime minister. The administration has offered to set up a judicial commission run by the Supreme Court to investigate the rigging allegations against Sharif, but Khan insists that negotiations cannot move forward until the prime minister resigns.
Who is Tahir-ul-Qadri and what does he want?
Qadri is a Canadian-Pakistani cleric who was close to Sharif in the late 1980s when he was a cleric at a mosque in Sharif’s Lahore neighborhood. Sharif helped Qadri setup a network of modern religious schools across Pakistan, which has expanded to North America and the United Kingdom, and is now his main source of income. He is seen as a moderate Sufi preacher.
Political differences caused Qadri to break ties with Sharif in the 1990s.
Qadri heads a political party called Pakistani Awami Tehreek (PAT), the Movement of the Pakistani Public, and has tried to reenter politics since the restoration of democratic elections in 2008. Qadri's latest protest was launched on the same day as Khan's. He views the entire political system as corrupt and demands that the government step down and all assemblies be dissolved.
Qadri won public sympathy in early June when at least 14 of his workers were killed in the city of Lahore by the Pakistani police, who opened fired at them after clashes broke out at a local protest. A judicial inquiry by the Lahore High Court into the incident called for a full investigation into Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, who is currently chief minister in Punjab Province, where the incident took place.
Although Khan and Qadri portray themselves as working independently from each other, "there is definitely coordination between them, especially at party worker and middle-tier leadership levels," says Hassan Belal Zaidi, an editor at Pakistan's largest English daily newspaper, Dawn. Mr. Zaidi says the two leaders have coordinated their media appearances.
Is it likely Mr. Sharif will resign?
Sharif has the backing of parliament, including all opposition parties except for Khan's, making it highly unlikely that he will resign. However, he has been cornered.
“Although it is hard to predict what will happen, it is safe to say he will at least survive this," says Zaidi. "However the power of his mandate has been crushed to a large extent.”
What's really at stake here?
Like much of Pakistani politics, the current crisis boils down to civil military relations. Pakistan has been ruled by military generals for half of its existence.
The military is used to having control over national security and foreign policy decisions. Sharif has been pushing hard for greater civilian control over areas typically under military purview, observers say, – and has antagonized the Army by his willingness to draw closer to India; negotiating with the Pakistani Taliban; and insisting on putting former President Pervez Musharraf on trial for treason.
The Pakistani press reports that Khan and Qadri may be getting support for their protests from the Army, in order to send a signal to Sharif that they are still powerful and need to be included in key decisions.
"Most Pakistanis believe the generals have given a wink and a nod to Messrs. Khan and Qadri in hopes that their televised demonstrations and threats of violence will sap the civilian government's energies," wrote Husain Haqqani, former Pakistan ambassador to the US, in a recent Wall Street Journal commentary.
"Pakistani politics is all about patronage politics, where you develop a clientele which then is committed to you as opposed to your opponent," says Islamabad defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqui. "The military as an institution has always had this influence in politics, through clients in the political parties, in the civil society, and in the media...But Nawaz [Sharif] is challenging that."
What does the protest scene look like?
The protest seems more like a big carnival. Music blares from speakers when the leaders are not making speeches, and men and women are seen dancing.
Organizers have provided no facilities to ensure that participants eat or sleep in comfort, so Constitution Avenue, the street where most protesters are gathered, is littered with trash and protesters sleeping on the roads or sidewalks. During the day, attendance normally drops down to a few hundred. It picks up again in the evening when the weather is cooler. Many stall-owners and daily wage earners have headed to the area to sell street food and posters, or do face-painting with the colors of Khan’s party flag.
The scene has also been tense, especially when parliamentarians try to enter and exit the parliament building. One evening Qadri urged his protestors to block the politicians from leaving, but the situation defused after the intervention of the military stationed on site.
Ali Rafi, a student from Lahore who has been going to the protests since their start says he will continue attending until Khan’s demands are met. “We just want Nawaz to go until the investigations [of vote rigging] are complete and if he is proven innocent, he can come back and take power again. My friends and I, we all have enough supplies to last for as long as Khan is going to be here,” Mr. Rafi says.
What should we watch for next?
Political analysts predict instability will persist, even after the protests fizzle out. Sharif will have to focus on surviving his remaining 3-1/2 years in office if he makes it out of this crisis unscathed.
“If Nawaz survives this crisis, which I feel he will, [he] will leave as a weak, vulnerable, and a dented prime minister. Ever since he came to power, he has been on a shopping spree – and what he has been buying are problems,” says Muneeb Farooq, a political talk show host for Pakistan’s largest news network Geo News.
"It is ironic that the prime minister of Pakistan, who won with a two-third majority, has been cut to size and is functioning like the mayor of Islamabad at most,” Mr. Farooq says.