WHY DO THE POLITICIANS – BHUTTO OR NAWAZ SHARIF – RESORT TO RIGGING WHEN THEY KNEW THAT THEY COULD OTHERWISE WIN THE ELECTIONS? AND WHAT ABOUT THE LESSONS FROM HISTORY?
Imran Khan is organizing a “long march” this month, culminating in a visit to – or, perhaps, an occupation of – the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Ostensibly, he is protesting against the rigging of last year’s elections, even though most analysts agree that any fraud that did take place would not have materially affected the outcome. It seems more the case that Mr Khan is desperate to re-establish himself as a serious contender in Pakistani politics.
The self-styled cleric, televangelist and orator, Tahir Ul Qadri, has decided to join hands with Mr Khan in Islamabad on August 14 – and Mr Qadri is promising a revolution. There is little doubt that between the two of them they could destabilize the weakened Nawaz Sharif-led government.
Meanwhile, the government has invoked Article 245 of the constitution and called in the army “in aid of civil power” for a period of three months that started on Sunday. The government says this is a response to the possibility of retaliation from Tehrik-I-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which is targeting its militants in North Waziristan, but the fact that Mr Khan’s movement has unnerved Mr Sharif is commonly accepted. A constitutional appeal has been filed in the High Court challenging the government’s decision to invoke Article 245.
Calling on the army as a preemptive measure is not merely an admission by the Sharif government of its inability to respond to the Khan-Qadri challenge, it is also ceding further political space to the army in Islamabad. Under Article 245, the army is constitutionally protected from judicial reprisals.
I am struck by the similarities between the current situation and that in the 1970s.
In 1976, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – a Machiavellian but genuinely popular political leader – decided to rig the elections and won. The opposition took to the streets to protest – even though, like now, it was generally accepted that the fraud had had no effect on the outcome.
The weak protest was met with violence. As a result, it grew in numbers and soon turned into a popular movement. It culminated in Lahore and, when further opposed, turned increasingly violent. Bhutto invoked Article 245 and called in the army.
The difference this time is that the army has been requisitioned as a preemptive move – and that is one of the reasons why the move has been challenged in court.
Back in the 1970s, a few ambitious young army officers ordered their men to fire on the demonstrators in Lahore. But three brigadiers, voicing the view of most officers and the rank and file, refused to fire and resigned their commissions. They enjoyed the support of a large number of senior officers.
The rest, as they say, is history. Bhutto paid for his error of judgment with his life. Though this was not his last mistake, it was the one that led him to the hangman’s noose.
More recently, in 2009, Mr Sharif was the central figure in a similar “long march” to restore Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as Pakistan’s chief justice. That the restoration was a disaster is irrelevant to this discussion. But Mr Sharif could draw a parallel.
That history repeats itself is unfortunate. That so few leaders choose to analyze history to learn from it is the real tragedy.Such movements thrive only if they are opposed. In a recent media interview, Mr Khan has expressed the desire to “face the first bullet”. This is exactly what he and Mr Qadri want: a violent response.
If Mr Sharif had the courage to call his bluff, Mr Khan’s challenge might soon turn to bluster.