The Political Crisis in Pakistan: Are There Any Victors?

ISSSP Reflections No. 21, October 7, 2014

Author: Ms. Ramya PS


963245Imran Khan, Nawaz Sharif and Tahirul Qadri.The positive assumptions and analysis carried out following the 2013 elections regarding the growing powers of the civilian regime in the still fledgling democracy of Pakistan seem to be ebbing away. Despite the ‘success’ of the first transfer of power from one civilian government to another, recent events have highlighted the fact that the power of the Pakistani Army remains central.

The sudden outpouring of protests in the streets of Islamabad led by Imran Khan and Tahir-ul Qadri, demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister has been criticised for many reasons. From allegations of being backed by the Army to using unconstitutional means to weaken the civilian government, the protests have thrown open the eternal dilemma of civil-military relations within Pakistan. What remains the major issue is how the bargaining games and power play dynamics shift in light of these protests.

Protesting What?

When the protests began on 14th August, signals of impending political instability began doing the rounds. The two groups of protesters led by Imran Khan of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Qadri of Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) although independent of each other, seem to be protesting on a similar plank­­ — for the ouster of Nawaz Sharif. The former’s demands include resignation of PM Sharif over allegations of rigging of the 2013 elections and call for fresh elections while the latter has had a history of protesting against civilian governments, demanding a ‘revolution’ and implementation of the first 40 Articles of the constitution.

The prelude to the protests began with Qadri’s impending return to Pakistan from Canada. In light of the previous protest led by Qadri last year against the Zardari government, the present government sought to obstruct his return. The ensuing clashes between the PAT supporters and the police led to the death of at least elven people in Model Town in Lahore. This paved way for Qadri to march towards Islamabad and question the authority of PM Sharif. Meanwhile, Imran Khan announced his decision to launch a mass protest against the government which would commence on Pakistan’s Independence Day.

The protests garnered high level of media coverage and the demand for the Prime Minister’s resignation grew stronger. Although, the number of protesters from both PTI and PAT has been debatable ranging from 20,000 to 30,000 and some estimations going up to 60,000, the larger perception is that it is too little to stir the level of instability it has. The protests have continued for over six weeks and Khan has continued with his ‘sit-in’ protests in Islamabad despite falling short on funds.

The basis of Khan’s protest— alleged rigging of the 2013 elections is flimsy at best. After nearly a year since the elections, having won 33 seats in the National Assembly and forming a government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the sudden need for protesting against the government at the center brings into question the motives behind the protest. Although, Khan’s agenda is questionable, the allegations of nepotism and corruption against Sharif’s government are relevant. The number of family members holding high-level portfolios coupled with corruption charges do not place Sharif’s government in good light.

However, the content of Khan’s vindictive speeches against Sharif, who still is an elected representative and enjoys a majority in Parliament, indicates that Pakistan’s polity leaves much to be desired in terms of improving the democratic ethos in the country. Moreover, by not allowing the police to use violent means against the protestors and looking into the Model Town case, Sharif left the protestors with fewer reasons to protest. However, a recent clash between PTI protestors and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) at Wazirabad has led to PM Sharif facing more criticism from his opponents. While Imran Khan has been expanding his protests to Mianwali and Larkana, Qadri has followed suite and decided to hold protests in Faisalabad and in Lahore.

As the debate on the success/failure of the anti-government protests of PTI and PAT continues, what is crucial to analyse is if the modality of operation of the Pakistani Army has changed in dealing with civilian regimes?

Contemplating the Past and Present: Coups in Pakistan

Military coups have formed an essential part of Pakistan’s history. Even prior to General Ayub Khan’s bid to power the power of the Pakistani Army grew steadily. This is seen in the case of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy which sought to overthrow the Liaquat Ali government. Although, the conspiracy has been linked to the communist elements within Pakistan, several Army officers including Major General Akbar Khan and others were involved. Furthermore, the growth of Major General Iskander Mirza, the first president of Pakistan who was later ousted by Commander-in-Chief Ayub Khan depicts how power struggles leading to coups are common to the political fabric of Pakistan.

But the takeover of power by the Pakistani Army has been swift and blatant until recently. The four periods of military rule under Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf all occurred in a decisive fashion. Each of these coups occurred by first depicting a lack political stability through protests and outlining the inadequacies of the civilian government in charge. For instance, noting the fissures within the political system, Ayub Khan planned the coup in October 1958. Similarly, the downfall of civilian leader Zulfikar Bhutto began with the protests of rigging of the 1977 elections and allegations of nepotism and corruption. These protests in turn reasserted the presence of the Army in the political arena. The coup led by Zia ul Haq garnered support due to the growing resentment within the Army over Bhutto’s growing power and the momentum created by the anti-Bhutto protests.

Furthermore, the tumultuous period of civilian rule from 1988 to 1999 was marked by opposition parties protesting against the government through the support of the Army. The content of the protests mainly accused the party in power of nepotism and corruption. Significantly, the Army backed the protests whenever the said government acted outside its jurisdiction on foreign policy and security issues. For instance, the removal of Benazir Bhutto during her first term (1988-1990) occurred through anti-government protests by the opposition party, the Islami Jamhoori Ithad/ Islamic Democratic Alliance (IJI) headed by Nawaz Sharif with the backing of the Army and ISI under the covert operation Midnight Jackals. Later, Nawaz Sharif had to forcefully resign and dissolve his government during his first term (1990-1993) as Prime Minister due to disagreements arising between him and the Army. The use of the 8th Amendment to dissolve the National Assembly by the President coupled with the Commander-in-Chief of the Army overseeing the performance and functioning of the civilian government ensured that the Army controlled the political scene from the background, albeit with a firm hand.

During the 1990s, the Army pitted political opponents and ensured their continual control over crucial policy formulations in the domain of security and foreign affairs. Even the ouster of Nawaz Sharif in his second term (1996-1999) by General Musharraf occurred overtly and decisively. Moreover, Sharif was seen as the ‘fall guy’ for the Army as he failed to back the latter’s actions during the Kargil conflict coupled with blatant overtures made by Sharif to consolidate his power over the Army. Significantly, the main charges against Sharif’s government were nepotism and corruption, allegations that were used to delegitimise previous civilian governments. This to some extent also throws light on how the Army sees itself as the only formally organised institution within Pakistan capable of handling a crisis. Musharraf’s lowly view of the political class and description of the ‘celebrations’ by the people on the streets on Sharif’s ouster in 1999 are indicative of this.

However, following the ouster of Musharraf from power the tactics of the Army in creating pressure on the civilian regime to retain control have become more indirect. Although, the pattern remains the same—pitting political foes against each other and basing anti-government protests on charges of corruption and nepotism. The next step of coming forward and decisively taking over power has not been seen under General Kayani and seems to be the same case under present COAS, General Raheel Sharif.

Surviving the Army

The manner in which Asif Ali Zardari handled the ‘million man march’ called by Qadri back in 2013 resonates in the present protests. Islamabad was cordoned off in light of the protests and Senator Rehman Malik called the protests “illegal”. Furthermore, the demand of calling for a caretaker government set up by the military and judiciary led many to allege that Qadri was being backed by the Pakistani Army. This coupled with the Memogate scandal provided Zardari enough room to survive a coup but indicated the degree of pressure the Army could exert over the government. Recent events indicate the continuance of General Kayani’s ‘power without responsibility’ formula.

Reports have emerged that around five officers from the Kayani period in the Corp Commander circle pushed for the removal of PM Sharif but the COAS General Raheel Sharif thought otherwise. Some analysis suggests that Raheel Sharif is biding his time and waiting to appoint his loyalists as the Corp Commanders once the Kayani appointed officers retire.

Another hypothesis doing the rounds is that the recent protests have been engineered to clip PM Sharif’s wings given his government’s India policy, handling of Musharraf’s trial for treason and policy towards the Pakistani Taliban all of which seemed to be going against the dominant thinking within the Pakistan Army. Although, at this stage the maneuverings of the Army is still left to conjecture, the interesting aspect remains the case of Imran Khan and why the Army would back him (in light of the allegations made).

Imran Khan’s protests took a major blow when PTI President Javed Hashmi announced that PTI chief was being led by the Army and the protests were being orchestrated. This dramatic revelation not only exposed the rifts within PTI but ended up saving Sharif’s government.

Significantly, differences exist between the Army and Imran Khan over several policies especially with regard to the handling of internal threats relating to the Pakistani Taliban. Moreover, Khan has been depicted as being an unreliable and temperamental leader to back. His statements against Sharif calling him a ‘stooge of the US’ and erratic approach to economic policies make him a less favourable leader to replace. The question then arises as to why the Army would back him?

One possible explanation could be that Khan would be the viable ‘fall guy’ for the Army. He could be used to put enough pressure on the Prime Minister thereby allowing the Army to exert its influence. In the past, the Army had supported Nawaz Sharif in 1990, then seen as a temperamental leader and later withdrew support and backed Benazir, showing that the Army places its eggs in different baskets.

The continuation of protests by Khan on the flimsy plank of ‘rigged elections,’ despite waning support indicates a heightened thirst for power by the leader. But the bigger question remains on the timing of the whole issue and why this specific moment was chosen to carry out such protests.


The protests which began in August seem to be slowing down but Imran Khan still remains adamant for the Prime Minister’s resignation. The continued sit-in protests launched by PTI in Islamabad coupled with the PAT organising similar protests pressure seems to be building on Nawaz Sharif. However, this has brought the Pakistani Army to the forefront as the ‘power broker’. With the Army maintains that PM Sharif should refrain from using violence against the protesters, the Prime Minister seems to be surviving to stay in office.

Will Sharif be able to regain the control over the crucial areas of policy formulation such as foreign affairs and security is debatable. On the one hand, he has the experience of his previous stints in power wherein he has tried both confrontation and conciliation in his dealings with the Army. On the other hand, the Army is undergoing changes in its mechanism of influencing the political framework through the backdoor.

If the appointment of the new ISI Chief is anything to go by, PM Sharif in a bid to remain in power has conceded ground to the Army. The unfolding events have indicated that the Prime Minister has survived, Imran Khan is heading towards becoming a sour loser and the Army retains a stronghold over important foreign policy and security issues. Though the signs look ominous, one hopes that in the final scheme of things, democracy in Pakistan comes out stronger.

About the Author

Ms. Ramya PS is a Junior Research Fellow at ISSSP, NIAS. She can be reached at ramya[dot]panuganty[at]gmail[dot]com

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