What’s going on in Pakistan?

Tariq Ali

A trip through the dark corridors and political galleries suggests that what we are witnessing in Pakistan today – street demos in Lahore and Islamabad, attempts to seize the prime minister’s house, a token occupation of the state television building – is little more than a crude struggle for power between the incumbents (the two stooges otherwise known as the Sharif brothers) and a segment of the opposition led by Imran Khan and the forces unleashed by the Canadian-based ‘moderate’ Islamist cleric Tahirul Qadri, who controls a large network of madrassahs that were supported by the Sharifs and many others. Mohammad Sarwar, for instance, the governor of Punjab (a millionaire chum of Blair and Brown and former New Labour MP from Glasgow), joined Qadri’s procession, presumably to demonstrate his faith.

Qadri says that democracy has failed the country and cannot deliver the reforms necessary to alleviate the suffering of the majority. He is opposed to violence and insists that his group was not in favour of his temporary partner’s tactics. While Khan’s followers stormed the Red Zone, Qadri stayed away and drizzled. His own politics are mysterious. The only serious alternative to actually existing democracy is the army, which in the decades that it ruled Pakistan was also incapable of any real reforms that benefited the poor or middle layers of society. And being a moderate, Qadri is certainly not in favour of a caliphate. At least, not yet.

Khan alleges that the polls were so heavily rigged in last year’s general election as to deny him victory. That polls in Pakistan are often rigged is beyond dispute – but to what extent? The defeated Pakistan People’s (in reality Zardari-Bhutto’s) Party made no such charge, despite being virtually wiped out in Punjab. Khan, too, accepted the results at the time and was photographed smiling with the new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. More to the point, his party agreed to form the government in the frontier province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. If the election had been rigged so extensively, why not bide your time, become Leader of the Opposition and fight in parliament instead of forming a provincial government composed of the usual coterie of bandwagon careerists? Those (including me) who had thought that Khan’s new movement might create a political space for something better have been proved wrong. He is demanding the Sharif brothers resign with immediate effect and new elections be organised.

After their electoral triumph, the Sharif brothers behaved in the same old way as before, announcing fancy projects (with fancy contracts attached) that had little to do with the real state of the country: power cuts worse than before; the price of basic commodities spiralling upwards; religious violence; terror attacks, including one on Karachi Airport in which some poor, privatised security guards who had taken shelter in the airport’s huge freezer were burned to death. The Sharifs’ unpopularity grew rapidly.

Sulking in his tent, the frustrated, untutored, impulsive Imran Khan felt that he could and would have done better had he not been cheated at the polls. He convinced himself that he had actually won and that the Sharifs had to go. If the record of his government in KP is anything to go by, it’s doubtful that he would have done any better on a national scale. But no serious observer of Pakistan politics (including severe critics of the existing order) believes that the elections were that heavily rigged. The Sharif brothers (especially Shahbaz, who runs the Punjab) are masters of guile backed up, when necessary, with plump envelopes stuffed with money. But like it or not, they won the elections, which is why the Baluch parties, the PPP and the Jamaat-i-Islami have not joined the campaign to dethrone them.

Pakistan’s politicians never seem to have understood that the army is the crucial player in the country. This has been true since the state’s creation. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto overestimated his power base, made one mistake too many and was hanged by the generals. Nawaz Sharif imagined that with his overwhelming electoral triumph and the enthusiastic backing of Riyadh (on whose oil both the country and the military are heavily dependent) he was untouchable. He wanted to make an example of General Pervez Musharraf, who had toppled the last Sharif government in a coup in 1999, by trying him for high treason in the Supreme Court and having him hanged or locked up indefinitely. The army high command was livid. Six months ago [OK?] the current chief of staff, General Raheel Sharif, called Nawaz in and asked him to desist. Evidently he agreed to drop the charges against Musharraf and told the army chief that his predecessor was free to leave the country.

Outside GHQ, back in the sunlight, the prime minister’s colleagues told him he had made a mistake. The deal was off. The corps commanders were enraged. Heads had to roll. At the same time, the head of the country’s most popular and efficient news channel, Geo TV, said that a recent attempt on the life of one of their leading investigative journalists had been carried out by the ISI, and named the general in charge of that body as the assassin-in-chief. There was mayhem at GHQ. Nobody in the media had ever treated the army in such a cavalier fashion. The regulatory body was pushed to take Geo off the air. This incident, too, became part of the indictment against the Sharif brothers.

So the movement launched by Khan and Qadri is seen by many as being orchestrated by the secret state, its aim to destabilise the Sharifs and force them to resign. Khan’s outburst against the Saudis for ‘interfering in Pakistani politics’ was a result of Riyadh’s open hostility to any attempt to remove Sharif. The corps commanders held a meeting yesterday to discuss the political crisis and made it clear that the army has no plans to take control beyond what they control already – defence and foreign policy. The brothers have been weakened but are the wounds fatal? The protesting crowds are small for Pakistan. Tens of thousands, nowhere near the million-strong march that had been predicted. The people let Khan down badly and that can’t be ascribed to rigging – or can it?

The army would like to punish the Sharif’s for their impertinence and would like to see the back of them, but the Saudis might stop the oil subsidies. Even were the Sharifs to resign voluntarily, it is unlikely that Khan would be appointed head of a caretaker government. Some technocrat would be found to prepare the next election and inflate his own bank account. Every scenario has been tried and failed.


  • 2 September 2014 at 5:24pm
    Asif Chauhan says:
    The article is dangerously misleading, this is so not what's going on in Pakistan. But I don't have a reason to assume malice on author's part so I think he is just confused.

    So I'll just say 2 things:

    1. I lost him at "Khan alleges that the polls were so heavily rigged in last year’s general election as to deny him victory. "

    IK never claimed he'd have won. Ever. Even now he is demanding country wide reelections, not just for himself.

    Author made no mention of that IK accepted Nawaz's PMship even after knowing that there was significant rigging involved.

    But that's also the reason IK demanded investigations in 4 sectors/halqas so that NEXT elections would be rigging free.

    IK/PTI exhausted every legal venue (Election Comm., Election Tribunal, Parliament and the Supreme Court) but to no vain.

    This has been going on for FIFTEEN months and during this time IK had been loud and clear on tv shows, speeches etc. that if corrupt system doesn't hold those investigations, he'd come to streets, because it's a question of future of a country of 180 Million people.

    2. Crowds are small?

    The last time civilians took to streets in this manner in Pak was back in the 70s, yet he is counting how many thousands, while no mention of unprecedented numbers of women participating.

    Is he even paying attention to how the protests are spreading across cities as we speak, and numbers are growing, especially after recent police brutality on civilians?

    So either the author is confused or fearful, and I think neither is a good state of mind to comprehend a soft revolution.

    • 9 September 2014 at 12:46pm
      jalib says: @ Asif Chauhan
      Asif Chauhan is being deliberately disingenuous.

      1.) Throughout the campaign, Imran Khan insisted that he would become prime minister. He said this on television several times and in interviews with the press.

      There was no need to mention Imran accepting Nawaz Sharif at the time when now he obviously no longer does. Imran says Nawaz is an illegitimate prime minister -- the former all-rounder has gone back on his own word.

      The government has no means of investigating individual constituencies. This is the job of the election tribunals, none of which were appointed by PML-N.

      PTI hasn't exhausted legal avenues. The cases are still in the courts, and their progress hasn't been impeded by the government.

      Who is Imran Khan to decide that it's a question for the country? Do people's votes not count in determining their own wishes. As Chauhan himself concedes, PML-N would have come to government anyway.


      Yes, the crowds are small. In fact, they're tiny. In Egypt, for example, there were millions that took to the streets to topple Mubarak and then Morsi. In London, the Gaza protests were bigger than the PTI and PAT crowds in Islamabad.

      The crowds are smaller than the ones in Bangkok this year, or Beirut in 2005, or the Jantar Mantar in 2011. You can't overthrow a government in a country of 180 million by simply bringing only a few thousand on to the street.

      These crowds aren't just smaller than in the 1970s, they are smaller than the numbers that marched for the lawyers' movement in 2007.

      They are also isolated politically. The lawyers' movement was smart in gathering the entire opposition behind it, not narrowing the focus down to what looks like a personal campaign by Imran Khan to get himself installed in the PM's residence.

      Mr. Chauhan has also ignored all the undeniable points made by Tariq Ali in his piece. I suggest he read The Duel (2008) to learn more about Pakistan and its history.