Many thousands have mobilised in what is a tense standoff with the government
Since its inception in 1947, Pakistan has been through a revolving door of democratic and military rule. It has never been renowned for its stable governance, and the current standoff between Imran Khan, leader of the country’s second largest party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and the Pakistan Muslim League-Noon (PML-N) government is just another example why.
The 2013 elections marked a historic milestone for the country. It was the first time a democratically elected government had passed on the baton to the next, after completing its five year tenure. There are those who give the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) all the credit for this handover, though they must keep in mind that it was in large part possible because of the cooperation of the opposition and the head of the military – both stringently opposed to any form of extra-constitutional intervention.
The elections were overseen by Fakhruddin Ebrahim and took place under the tenure of the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudry, men implicitly trusted by Imran Khan and most of the general public at the time.
Things have now changed however, with Imran Khan blaming Iftikhar Chaudry of being part of a conspiracy to rig the elections, and Fakhruddin Ebrahim of being incompetent or disinterested in preventing it.
At first, the results of the general election as a whole were never disputed. It was widely accepted that the country had elected the PML-N with a heavy mandate. There were only accusations of foul play in certain constituencies as opposed to the whole electoral process.
Imran Khan requested that the government undertake an impartial investigation in four sample constituencies, with fingerprint verification; in the event that results indicated something untoward had taken place, the investigation’s scope would be broadened in order to identify flaws that needed to be addressed for electoral reform.
To say that the government mishandled the situation might be an understatement. It instead took a hard line stance against the proposal and fought tooth and nail to prevent any sort of impartial investigation. In fact, critics argue, when the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) chairman, Tariq Malik, looked to open an investigation, he was maligned and forced out of office.
It was also revealed that despite official regulations, a special magnetic ink required for verification purposes was not used, thus making checking the authenticity of the votes difficult.
One of the constituencies that Imran Khan had asked to investigate was NA-122, where, shockingly, he had been defeated by PML-N’s Ayaz Sadiq in what many called perhaps the biggest upset of the election.
Despite the dubious nature of the victory, PML-N supporters on social media reacted with glee as their party not only stonewalled an investigation, but also appointed Ayaz Sadiq as Speaker of the National Assembly. A Facebook post went viral mocking the fact that Imran Khan had to refer to Ayaz Sadiq as “Mr Speaker.”
This sort of antagonistic approach and lack of respite from the courts is the reason cited by Imran Khan for launching his protest movement. Months ago, a frustrated Khan had threatened to march into the capital with a million supporters unless his demands were met.
The government panicked, fully believing Imran Khan to be capable of gathering those numbers, and proposed negotiations for electoral reform. Emboldened by the government’s response, Imran Khan was accused of falling victim to his own hype, rejecting all negotiations until after the ‘long march’.
Already faced with the threat of Tahir ul Qadri, an anti-government televangelist with thousands of loyalists around the country, the government went into self-preservation mode, arresting PTI workers and blocking roads to the capital with shipping containers.
One could blame the barriers placed by the government, or the adverse weather, but there was no denying the fact that the long march itself had a poor showing. Imran Khan had promised a million man march, but only a small fraction of that number actually turned up on the day.
Many missteps ensued, including lack of preparation for heavy rain, and Khan going back to his mansion in Bani Gala for the night, despite having promised to stay with his supporters throughout. Several major analysts were comfortable in labelling this as an enormous disaster and perhaps the end of Imran Khan’s political career. His critics argued that before the long march, Imran Khan had had the government on the ropes and would have had significant leverage in the negotiations. He was likened to a poker player who had forgotten he was bluffing.
But slowly and steadily, the numbers grew and the protest picked up steam.
The protest movement now consists of dharnas, or daily sit-ins that grow from a couple of thousand people to tens of thousands. The size of the crowd depends on who you ask. Agencies answerable to the government might put the crowd to twenty thousand or less, while supporters on the ground estimate it to be over a hundred thousand people. They might not be the millions promised, but still a sizeable number of people on the streets. In the past few days, coordinated dharnas have taken place all across the country with massive crowds coming out in Lahore, Sialkot and the former capital Karachi to show their support for Imran Khan and the PTI.
The PTI want electoral reforms and for the individuals responsible for rigging the previous elections to be held accountable. They want the Prime Minister to resign because they believe that an impartial investigation is not possible with him at the helm. They also refuse to accept the results of 2013 and are calling for midterm elections after a caretaker government has been set up. Furthermore, the party has called for a civil disobedience movement and tendered resignations in the National Assembly to pressurise the government.
Despite the government and critics predicting an eruption of violence, the protests have been completely peaceful until now. It is argued that the PTI is putting economic stability and recovery at risk, with Khan standing accused of putting his personal ambitions of becoming the Prime Minister ahead of the betterment of the country. Critics also fear this whole situation is delegitimising democracy and empowering the military, some going so far as to brand Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri of being ‘puppets of the establishment’.
It is unlikely that Nawaz Sharif will tender his resignation, and Imran Khan has painted himself into a tight spot after declaring that he would not accept anything else.
Apprehensively, parallels to Egypt are being drawn, where the sitting Prime Minister had refused to hold midterm elections despite millions of people demonstrating on the streets, leading to a military takeover. That is the last thing that anyone in Pakistan should want.
Last ditch negotiations are currently underway between the protesting parties and the government, with the Prime Minister having called in the army to act as a mediator and guarantor. Needless to say, the whole nation is watching with bated breath
Image from: http://www.dawn.com/news/1125273
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