Today our rickshaw journey through central Lahore was blocked by a protest. We can’t be sure because the signage was in Urdu, but we think it was an offshoot of the demonstrations that have brought the national capital, Islamabad, to a standstill. But in Lahore it was pretty feeble. The guy with the microphone shouting chants was louder than the crowd that he wanted to repeat them. Police stood idly by. They were more likely to be twirling their mustaches than their batons. Still, down the road the protests are violent and a significant challenge to state authority, so they deserve a bit of explanation.
Scarcely a year ago Nawaz Sharif won a landslide victory and became Pakistan’s Prime Minister. This was a remarkable comeback considering last time he was in office the military kicked him out and installed General Musharaf in 1999.
Two opposition groups are now appealing for dismissal for corruption. Contrary to what I wrote previously, they’ve little to substantiate their claims that the last election was rigged. They can point to some garden variety developing world nepotism, but their march on the nation’s capital, demands that the PM resign and a new election be held seem disproportionate.
What the opposition does have, though, is charismatic leaders who have whipped their followers into a frenzy. One is Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Pakistani born Canadian national cleric with a white turban and a broad smile. The other is Imran Kahn a former cricketer who comes off to me primarily as a sore loser.
Khan, much like myself, is prone to using corny cricket metaphors. He’s recently started talking about how a “third umpire” will come in to adjudicate the situation. What he means is that the army will come in and kick the PM out. His protest is probably best.understood as creating enough havoc that the military feel they have to get involved.
But the army is its own team, not an impartial observer, and it’s probably the strongest in Pakistan. Its generals have called for restraint between the two parties and encouraged negotiations between the government and opposition. That’s a sleight on its constitutional job of doing what the government tells it. But it has stopped short of actively intervening thus far.
The army isn’t wild about the current PM. It has kicked him out before, after all. And his inclination to warm relations with India is counter to its reason for being. But it just might be that its major military offensive against the Taliban is enough to consume most of its attention. It’d sure ironic if the Taliban inadvertently keeps Pakistan on a democratic path.
Here’s hoping the protests just peter out, like an ODI batting chase that isn’t losing wickets but can’t hit the required run rate.