by Zia Sarhadi
Pakistan has been gripped political crisis since August 14. Does it pose a serious challenge to Nawaz Sharif who is accused his opponents of rigging the May 2013 elections to get into power?
The two constants in Pakistani politics — Army and America, dubbed the two ‘As’ since Pakistanis have forgotten the only A, Allah that matters and therefore, He (swt) has also forgotten them — always come to the fore whenever there is a crisis. Given Pakistan’s troubled history, one is hard pressed to point out when there wasn’t a crisis.
Almost all politicians, especially those in power, have run to the army chief General Raheel Sharif (no relation to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) and the American ambassador in Islamabad Richard G. Olsen seeking their support. The ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) has repeatedly sent emissaries to meet the army chief and have come back assured that the army would not stage a coup in the current crisis. Almost all politicians say they do not want a coup but the fact is such crises make it virtually impossible for the army to stay above the fray. Their fingers itch when they see politicians at each others’ throats and it does not take much to stage a coup. It is all very civilized.
Pakistan army’s 111 Brigade has perfected the art of staging “successful” coups. Part of the 10 Corps, the 111 Brigade is based in Islamabad just behind the parliament building. The politicians’ pilgrimage to military headquarters in Rawalpindi has provided much amusement to the masses as they witness the latest drama being played out in their living rooms on television screen. There is 24/7 coverage with newscasters trying to dramatize even the smallest development in the streets of Islamabad outside the parliament building.
This time, however, the army does not have to stage a coup; it has demanded more space (read, complete freedom in foreign policy and security issues). Thus people can rest assured they are not likely to see a general in uniform addressing them in the middle of the night on television, “Merey aziz humwatno!: My dear countrymen!” The rest of the script is also quite familiar: the “saviors of the nation” had no choice but to take over from corrupt and incompetent politicians, etc, etc.
The current impasse — it is difficult to predict which way it will turn as we go to press — was completely avoidable. For more than a year, Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan claimed massive rigging in the general election of May 2013. He identified four specific constituencies where he wanted a vote recount. Nawaz Sharif, ensconced in the Prime Minister’s chair, showed complete unwillingness to even entertain the thought. As is the wont of most Pakistani politicians, they ignore a problem hoping it will go away. This time, it has not. Imran Khan has built his campaign for nearly a year. He launched his long march from Lahore 300 km to the south on August 13 and planned to reach Islamabad on August 14, coinciding with Independence Day celebrations.
He was held back by the government putting hurdles in his way along the route. Many of his supporters were prevented from coming to Islamabad but he arrived in the federal capital on August 15. In the early hours of the next morning, he delivered what he said was the most important speech of his political career. He listed a litany of charges against Sharif including massive corruption. He asked how his son could buy multiple properties in London worth hundreds of millions of pounds when it is impossible to obtain money by fraudulent means in Britain. He named people Sharif has bribed: Mir Shakilur Rahman of Jang Group of newspapers, Najm Sethi who served as caretaker chief minister of Punjab during the last election and is currently a member of the Pakistan Cricket Board. Imran also said Sharif (calling him Mian Sahib) bribed judges, MPs, and even tried to bribe generals to get them on his side. These are pretty strong charges and interestingly, neither Mir Shakil nor Sethi has threatened to take legal action against Imran. One wonders why?
Imran’s rallies have continued since then (as of compiling this report, his supporters are still in the streets). There are in fact two rallies — dharna in Pakistani parlance — taking place in Islamabad simultaneously. One is led by PTI where Imran Khan, the cricket-star-turned politician appears atop his container to work up the crowds. He has promised a naya (new) Pakistan free from corruption once Sharif is ousted from power.
The other rally is led by Tahirul Qadri, a Canadian citizen who has returned to Pakistan to bring about a “revolution.” He has also ensconced himself in a container where he receives politicians of various stripes. Crescent International can reveal that last May, a special envoy met Qadri to deliver him a secret message from Pakistan. We are not privy to the full contents of that message but it is certain that green light was given to him from powers that be to return to Pakistan for his campaign (Qadri had launched a similar campaign in December 2012 that fizzled out after a few days but not before thousands of his followers were drenched in the pouring rain while the self-proclaimed Shaykh al-Islam sat in his comfortable container decked with sofas and carpets. Some revolution, he was going to bring!).
The two rallies have created a serious problem for the ruling party. Both leaders demand Sharif’s resignation before any progress can be made in negotiations. Several rounds of negotiations have taken place between the government and PTI teams but they have not broken the impasse. Imran Khan has put forward six demands including electoral reforms, appointment of new judges to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) because he accuses the existing members of being complicit in facilitating fraud in the election, impartial investigation of electoral fraud, resignation of Sharif and fresh elections.
Imran’s position was strengthened by a former additional secretary of the Election Commission, Afzal Khan confirming on August 24 that fraud did take place and that judges were complicit in it. He accused the former Chief Election Commissioner, Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim of turning a blind eye to rigging. He also accused Justice (retd) Riaz Kayani of being instrumental in rigging the election in Punjab as well as former Chief Justices of Pakistan, Justices (retd) Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and Tassaduq Hussain Gilani of intentionally appointing dishonest Returning Officers. These are serious allegations and must be fully investigated. The big question is: who will do it? If the present rulers are accused of involvement and of being beneficiaries of fraud, then they cannot remain at the helm while investigations are underway. This is the argument advanced by Imran Khan.
To put further pressure on the government, all PTI members of the National Assembly have tendered their resignations that have not been accepted by the assembly speaker Ayaz Sadiq so far. It was Sadiq against whom Imran contested one of the seats from Lahore. A school friend of Imran’s (both studied at Aitcheson College in Lahore) Sadiq was a member of PTI before being lured to join Sharif’s party. Imran has alleged that Sadiq won his seat through rigging. If the resignation of PTI members is accepted it will necessitate holding by-elections on more than 30 National Assembly seats. It would be seen as a referendum on the ruling party’s performance.
In pressing his demands, Imran Khan has called upon the people not to pay utility bills or taxes. He said he will not do so either because the Sharif Brothers (Nawaz and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz) are involved in massive fraud, including stealing people’s money and stashing it away or buying properties abroad in the UK, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, etc. He therefore urged the people not to support such a corrupt government. To up the ante, he has also threatened to launch a wheel-jam strike, meaning bringing all transport in the country to a halt. The fact that he has maintained people’s interest in the rallies and they have attended them every day, much to the discomfort of the government, shows people’s support and enthusiasm for his stand.
What has emerged from the negotiations so far is that the ruling party has accepted five of the six demands put forward by Imran. Only the prime minister’s resignation has not been accepted. The PTI chief is adamant that with Nawaz Sharif at the helm, he cannot trust the government to do an honest audit of electoral fraud or any of the other demands he has put forward. There have even been reports that Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan should take over as caretaker prime minister or Nawaz Sharif should go on one month’s leave. None of these reports, however, can be confirmed but on August 25, Amir of Jama‘at-e Islami Sirajul Haq said that this (Sharif going on one month’s leave) proposal by the PTI may provide an opening for progress in talks. The Jama‘at Amir has emerged as a serious and honest mediator between the parties and has urged all sides to show flexibility.
So desperate is Sharif in clinging to power that he invited former president Asif Ali Zardari for lunch at his Raiwind Estate outside Lahore. Zardari had returned from Dubai only two days earlier. A venal character, the People’s Party chairman cannot be relied upon to do anything right but it is rumored that Sharif offered him the post of president in return for his support. Whether this will materialize is a moot point.
After their meeting on August 23 over biryani and qorma plus Zardari’s favorite vegetable dishes, the former president said all actions must be done within the bounds of the constitution and that democracy should be strengthened. This begs the question whether the present set up is according to the constitution. After all, electoral fraud and bribing people are against the constitution. If a person is in power through fraud, what kind of a democracy is that? Further, few people in Pakistan doubt that more than 80% of the members of the National Assembly would be disqualified if the constitution were adhered to in letter and spirit. Two articles of the constitution stipulate that members running for National Assembly seats must be honest and upright (Articles 62 and 63). Their application would be enough to send most of the sitting MNAs packing home.
Whether Imran Khan and Qadri will succeed in their bid to unseat Sharif is difficult to predict, what is certain is that the prime minister has been badly weakened. He had little credibility even before the current crisis erupted but he still took on the powerful military to wrest control of important policies: dealing with the Taliban, relations with India and post-US Afghanistan. On all these issues, he has been forced to cede ground to the military. Even a government minister wishing to remain anonymous was quoted by the Dawn newspaper (August 22) as saying, “The biggest loser will be Nawaz, cut down to size both by puny political rivals and the powerful army.”
Sharif only has himself to blame. Besides, electoral fraud had already robbed him of any moral authority even if he had amassed an impressive number of MNAs in parliament to claim a majority. Most of them know that they are there not because the people support them but because of fraud. On numerous occasions, Sharif had said that every man has a price. Perhaps he had the likes of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, another venal character of Pakistani politics in mind. He had not contended with the likes of Imran Khan.
Whether Imran Khan would be able to solve the myriad problems facing Pakistan, if he were to come to power, is not certain. What one can say, however, is that he has proved his credentials by establishing the first-ever Cancer Hospital in Pakistan and the first-ever privately funded university. No other politician — past or present — comes close. On these two points alone, he has earned the people’s respect. He deserves a chance to prove his mettle.