Updated: August 27, 2014 07:50 PM GMT
Picture: The Economist/Reuters
IMRAN KHAN, a former star cricketer turned politician, is overly fond of cricketing metaphors. For the past six days he has delivered speeches peppered with corny references to the sport, to cheers from the thousands of followers he has protesting on the streets of Pakistan’s capital.
Unfortunately for his own role in the metaphor between sport and politics, Mr Khan lacks a certain basic level of respect for the umpire. Having failed to win last year’s election Mr Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI), is determined to have the result overturned. He makes his case on claims of massive “electoral match-fixing”—which have not been supported by independent observers.
Undeterred, over the past week Mr Khan led a slow-moving convoy from Lahore to Islamabad. He and his procession crawled along their 300km course without picking up the kind of throngs he had been hoping to find. In Islamabad Mr Khan’s stalwarts began a long sit-in on one of the capital’s long avenues. They heard their hero repeat his demand for the resignation of prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who leads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and controls an overwhelming majority in parliament.
Pakistan’s commentariat was unimpressed, with many pundits declaring the whole thing a flop because Mr Khan failed to get anywhere near the 1m people he had rashly predicted. While the crowd has ebbed and flowed as the monsoon rains have come and gone, it is generally thought to have peaked in size at around 20,000. Whatever the numbers, he has been outdone by Tahir ul-Qadri, a Canada-based cleric with a devoted following. Mr ul-Qadri is running a parallel demonstration demanding a revolution that will lead to an entirely new political order. In their aims the crowds have much in common, but their comparison in numbers is not flattering to the leader who claims to have won a national election.
Mr Khan will probably remain a national hero to many Pakistanis regardless of their politics. But he has attracted an unusual degree of public scorn after using his pulpit on Sunday night to call for a taxation strike. In a country where tax evasion is already rampant, he suggested Mr Sharif could be forced to step down within just 48 hours, if only enough people refused to pay their taxes and utility bills.
The political drama has proved a great distraction from other crises besetting the nation. On August 14th commando teams of Pakistani Taliban fighters attacked two separate military installations in the restive province of Baluchistan, killing 13 security forces. On August 18th the new government of India, led by Narendra Modi, signalled a tough new line when it cancelled high-level talks that had been planned between the two countries. The Indians were protesting against a meeting that Pakistan’s high commissioner had with Kashmiri separatists in New Delhi.
Mr Sharif is apparently unwilling to help Mr Khan back down from his extreme demands. And so the PTI leader doubled down, announcing that all of his party’s 34 parliamentarians would quit their seats in protest. The PTI members of the country’s four provincial assemblies will also resign—but not those in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the party controls the government—which is prompting accusations of hypocrisy.
To increase the pressure on the streets, Mr Khan ordered his youthful supporters to push into Islamabad’s sensitive “Red Zone” of government buildings and embassies. By the early hours of Wednesday morning, August 20th, thousands of Mr Khan’s and Mr Qadri’s supporters had removed barricades, pushed past police and camped themselves directly in front of the parliament building, with the two leaders repeating their demands for the removal of Mr Sharif.
While it still looks unlikely they will get their wish, the standoff has created perfect conditions for the army to reassert its traditional role, wielding the same power which Mr Sharif has used his first year in power to try and reduce. The fact that the army, which until Wednesday had remained silent on the matter, rushed to call for “patience” from all the “stakeholders” involved in the dispute has led many to conclude the whole affair was secretly orchestrated by the generals.
The military establishment has been anxious to regain its authority over foreign and defence policy, which was once unquestioned. The generals have been at loggerheads over Mr Sharif’s impassioned desire for warmer relations with India; Pakistan’s overgrown army exists largely to confront the giant neighbour. It is also unclear whether the army can tolerate Mr Sharif’s wish to drop the country’s decades-old policy of interfering in Afghanistan.
Whether or not Mr Sharif survives, coup-prone Pakistan’s strides towards greater democracy have been severely damaged. The 2013 election was historic for being the first time the country had ever experienced the peaceful transition of power after a democratically elected government survived its full five-year term for the first time. It only made it that long because Mr Sharif’s PML-N, then in opposition, refused to use street power to bring it down early.
It is not only Pakistan’s recent progress that is at stake. Given the evidence of growing public discontent with his haphazard campaign, Mr Khan also risks undermining his own chances of building on last year’s electoral success. In choosing to play what he has described as his “final match” against Mr Sharif, Mr Khan could end up losing everything he built for himself too.
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