The protests rocking Islamabad recently have given expression to the frustration of many ordinary Pakistanis tired of years of government corruption, economic malaise and terrorism.
Allegations of vote-rigging in last year’s national elections, won by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, have drawn tens of thousands of people out on the streets, with protesters calling on Sharif to resign with chants of ‘Go, Nawaz, go!’
Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who lost the 2013 elections, made the allegations regarding widespread fraud and has been demanding a recount in four constituencies using fingerprint verification, a measure which the government has been resisting.
To date, the protests have been peaceful, and with young people dancing in the streets to popular music and a large female participation, they are also sending out a progressive message in a society where the forces of conservatism and patriarchy are strong.
The allegations that rigging took place in the May 2013 elections are supported not just by Khan, but by all major parties in Pakistan. To highlight one glaring example, consider this: at one of the polling stations in Sargodha, Punjab, where Nawaz Sharif was running, he received close to 8,000 votes, although only some 1,500 voters were registered there.
An inquiry by the election commission later blamed a clerical error for the extra digit. Yet many would find it hard to believe that such a big mistake could happen in a constituency where such a prominent and leading candidate was running.
This is not an isolated incident. According to the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), in at least 49 polling stations the number of votes polled far exceeded the number of registered voters. Even former President Asif Ali Zardari has backed Khan’s demand for a recount in the four constituencies which have been named.
On Sunday 24 August, with protests ongoing, Muhammad Afzal Khan, former additional secretary of Pakistan’s election commission, created a buzz by claiming in a much reported television interview that last year’s election had been ‘massively rigged’ and blamed the country’s former Chief Justice for fraud involvement.
However, electoral fraud is not the only grievance of the protesters. Supporters of an Islamic cleric, Mohammad Tahirul Qadri, have joined the demonstrations, calling for justice over the killing of 14 members of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) party and the injuring of over 90 people in June 2014, when police clashed with workers in Model Town, a residential suburb in Lahore.
A court in Lahore has ordered the police to file a First Information Report (FIR) against the prime minister and other top officials, blaming them for the June events. Although Tahirul Qadri, who is also a Canadian national, did not participate in the 2013 elections, he has been calling for dramatic political changes in the country and many analysts see him as an opportunist player.
However, that doesn’t justify the heavy-handed tactics used against Qadri and his followers by the government, which have unwittingly served to raise his profile. On 25 August, he gave a 48-hour ultimatum to the government, threatening to start a ‘revolution’.
Critics say Khan and Qadri’s protests will harm democracy and play into the hands of elements within the military who would like to see the government weakened. They point to the fact that last year was the first time in Pakistan’s history that a democratic government completed its term in office and transferred power to another.
Still, it’s also worth keeping in mind that Sharif was first brought into the political limelight under the patronage of one of Pakistan’s worst military dictators, General Zia-ul Haq, during the 1980s. In the 1990s, he had two spells in office, which were marred by allegations of corruption and economic mismanagement. In 1996 a mob of his supporters attacked the country’s Supreme Court. Sharif’s record on press freedom was also very poor.
Regardless of the eventual outcome of these protests, they have created a new movement in the country for cleaner, fairer and more inclusive politics.