Diplomatic Enclave: Fragile Democracy
Mainstream political parties with a weakened Nawaz Sharif may not be able to keep the influence of the radical Islamist groups in check

Despite international censure, the Pakistani establishment’s alliance with its radical Islamist groups remains a deep-rooted part of its political life. The handling of a three-week long stand-off between the government in Islamabad and a clutch of radical groups blockading the capital city displayed the influence even minor Islamist groups wield in Pakistan.  About the same time, the Pakistani government chose to ignore likely international reactions to release Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed who had been under house arrest since January this year.

The release brought forth an out pouring of support to the leader of a UN banned terrorist organisation, who is known as the mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks. Former President Pervez Musharraf went on to claim in a press interview that he is the “biggest supporter” of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its founder Hafiz Saeed, though it was during his tenure that the LeT was banned in Pakistan. But the Pakistani government has chosen to ignore the strong opprobrium it has faced from the US and other countries. The Nawaz Sharif government had placed Saeed under house arrest under pressure from Washington, but his release was on the cards after the present government withdrew all charges of terrorism in October claiming that there was no evidence against him.  

The Pakistani government faced a torrid three weeks as the recently formed Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) together with two small groups blocked off the main road from Rawalpindi to Islamabad demanding the resignation of the Law Minister Zahid Hamid. The demand rose over an amendment to the Election Law 2017 that made a change in the oath for legislators, which the protestors termed as blasphemous. The government of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi initially underestimated the determination of the demonstrating groups. The proposed amendment was withdrawn but it had no effect. The protests paralysed Islamabad and spread to other cities like Lahore and Karachi.

Pressured by a court order to clear the roads, the government used the police to remove the protestors, but the ham-handed operation led to violent clashes resulting in the death of six persons and injuries to about 200 persons, many of them police personnel. As violence spread to other cities, the government was forced to turn to the Army to restore order. 

An official army tweet saying that army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa had spoken to the PM and “suggested that both sides avoid violence”, made it clear that the army was not willing to intervene. Its tweet actually equated the government and the protesting parties. Later as the violence escalated, the army mediated a deal with the radical groups that had the government accepting almost all their demands. The agreement carried the signature of Major Gen Faiz Hameed of the ISI and credited the army chief and his team for the special effort that led to agreement being signed, according the Dawn newspaper.

Pakistan’s civilian governments remain vulnerable to protests by radical groups that operate in the public arena. The term of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party in government that began in 2013 has been buffeted with political storms. In 2014, a demonstration organised by cricketer turned politician Imran Khan and non-resident cleric who occasionally dabbles in politics, Tahirul Qadri had blocked off Islamabad for four months to protest largescale electoral rigging. Many Pakistanis believed that the protests had the tacit support of the Pakistani army. 

The current denouncement has been building up since the PML(N) leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted following a court verdict that disqualified him from holding political office.

Sharif has called it a political conspiracy by the military establishment to keep him out of power, but he has managed to hold his party together and it was popularly believed that he would remain a strong force in the federal elections next year. 

The 2014 election was hailed as a strengthening of Pakistan’s fragile democracy as the previous Pakistan People’s Party government led by President Asif Ali Zardari had completed a full five year term, the first civilian government to do so, with a peaceful transfer of power to the victorious PML(N) then in the opposition. Pakistan has a history of elected governments being ousted for various reasons from military coups to corruption scandals being used to get them out of office.

The PLY and its fringe allies have managed to build up their stature with their capacity to hold a long protest and have it resolved largely in their favour. The Pakistani army has acted as it is a separate entity with its own agenda. the current state of affairs in Pakistan seem to indicate that the mainstream political parties with a weakened Nawaz Sharif may not be able to keep the influence of the radical Islamist groups in check before the elections next year.

Shubha Singh