The twin demonstrations led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan and Canada-returned cleric Tahir-ul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek resulted in talks between the protesters and government which were suspended by the PTI on Thursday. Through it all, the pitch has been raised dangerously high, with agitators breaking through Islamabad’s high-security “red zone” and demanding Nawaz Sharif’s resignation. The National Assembly has approved a resolution upholding the supremacy of the constitution and parliament, and rejected the demands of Khan and Qadri that were earlier called “unconstitutional” by the Lahore High Court. Yet the most significant — and troubling — fallout of the crisis is the return of the army to its pivotal position in the political process. This can only leave Nawaz Sharif weaker, significantly eroding the authority his landslide victory in last year’s election had invested in him.
While the military has reportedly assured the prime minister that there will be no coup, it has also asked him to “share space with the army”. This could be read as a prelude to a return to Pakistan’s old duality of the civilian government looking after domestic affairs, leaving foreign policy and defence to the army. Nawaz Sharif has suspected the army’s role in instigating the protests and he may have good reason to do so — the military’s mistrust of the prime minister, whom it had deposed in a coup in 1999, has never been a secret. Nawaz Sharif’s intended recalibration of policy towards non-interference in Afghanistan and improved ties with India, as well as his initial attempts to talk peace with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have contributed to the army’s wariness of him. The army is also displeased with his pursuit of Pervez Musharraf, put on an unprecedented trial for treason. Unfortunately for Pakistan’s PM, however, Khan and Qadri’s march on Islamabad has now forced him to negotiate with the army in the midst of its battle with the TTP in North Waziristan. In the circumstances, any assurance from the army would come at a price.
Without a deal between the parties concerned, the Pakistani state could be dangerously destabilised. Even if Nawaz Sharif manages to hold on to power, he could emerge as the biggest loser. As extraordinary as the present crisis seems, in a country ruled by the army for more than half its history, it has sparked a strong sense of deja vu. The concern now is how much space Pakistan’s PM will be forced to concede.