Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Islamabad’s independence day

With protest marches converging on Islamabad, what is behind political developments in Pakistan? asks Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

It can be difficult to piece together the story of contemporary Pakistani politics. Islamabad has historically wrestled with democracy in a much more clumsy manner than its neighbour India.

“I come from a poor family, and I want the poor to get dignity,” the Indian prime minister told an audience at Delhi’s iconic Red Fort, gathered to celebrate Indian independence day. This is the crux of the matter: while Pakistan is a feudal country, India permits the poor to reach the highest political posts in the country. Pakistan is an elitist state, and this is what the current problems are about.

Pakistan belatedly arrived at a similar conclusion to India’s — that western-style democracy is the panacea for the country’s political ills, but it did so from a different starting point from its giant neighbour. The world’s largest democracy, India is also, to an impressive degree, a meritocracy.

Secularist India has embraced democracy since independence. And while it is by no means a perfect democracy, it is a sturdy one where the opposition accepts the victor unequivocally. To put it bluntly, is Pakistan’s problem with democracy to do with Islam? All the major Pakistani political parties claim the mantle of Islam, with variations, to justify their existence, though this should not be taken as an iron-clad rule in a dynamic democracy.

Last week, the Pakistani cleric Tahirul Qadri began leading a convoy to Islamabad. Vehemently anti-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Qadri insists that last year’s elections that catapulted Sharif to power were rigged.

Qadri is an outspoken critic of the corruption of the upper echelons of the Pakistani political establishment. Sharif took office last year in what was hailed as Pakistan’s first peaceful democratic transfer of power from one civilian government to another.

It is also precisely as a result of allegations of corruption that Imran Khan, the superstar cricketer turned politician and a secularist liberal who now leads the country’s third-biggest political bloc, has joined the fiery Qadri in urging Sharif to step down, for the resignation of the government and fresh elections.

The two men have urged their followers to refrain from violence, and their model of political action seems to be that of Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The metaphors embedded in the sequence of events are replete with symbolism. The protesters left the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday, vowing to march to the capital, Islamabad. The political terminology that both the cleric and the liberal used to galvanise their followers was decidedly religious.

“The Sharifs must fear Allah and stop wasting the ravaged public’s money,” Khan said. The ruling party’s rank and file were unimpressed. On Friday, as the march passed through the city of Gujranwala, supporters of Sharif’s Muslim League hurled stones at the convoy.

Khan then gave Sharif’s government a two-day ultimatum and launched a nationwide civil disobedience campaign.

“Pakistan is not a banana republic, where a few thousand people can come and seek the resignation of the country’s prime minister,” Sharif retorted.

But the charismatic Khan, who led Pakistan to victory in the 1992 cricket World Cup, did not hold his tongue. “The time has arrived when the nation should decide. I will stay here until the prime minister resigns. We don’t accept a prime minister who has been appointed after rigged elections,” Khan said.

He denounced what he called “electoral match fixing. With a fraudulent mandate, Sharif has expanded his family business, increased the debt burden on the nation and lived like an oil sheikh on taxpayer’s money,” Imran thundered.

“We are not the party which has looted the country,” he proclaimed, threatening to storm the so-called Red Zone in the capital, home to the parliament, the residences of the president and prime minister, and foreign embassies.

In the same breath, he pleaded for a non-violent campaign — perhaps a contradiction in terms since the over-running of the Red Zone would most likely lead to bloodshed and government recrimination.

The bulk of Pakistani youth who make up 70 per cent of the 200 million population are driven into the bosom of parties like Khan’s. They appear to offer an alternative to a future marked by unemployment. The lack of social justice in the country, together with the stranglehold of feudal landowning families like that of Sharif, have incensed the frustrated Pakistani youth.

As a result, this is a landmark Pakistani independence day and a defining moment for Pakistan and Pakistani democracy. The Pakistani military will ultimately play referee, as it has done since independence, and whether or not Khan can really deliver on his promises is at best an open question.

“True democracy exists in the west as it serves the common man, not a single family,” Khan concluded, dismissing Sharif’s claims to power.

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