Pakistan's massive anti-government protests stay peaceful, for the moment

F. Riaz
Yahoo News
Pakistani children and female protestors sleep in front of the parliament building, during weeklong protests from the eastern city of Lahore to the gates of parliament calling for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's ouster over alleged voting fraud, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, Aug. 22, 2014. They swarmed into the capital in their thousands, protesters calling for the prime minister's resignation and the dissolution of parliament. The week-long protests in the capital and around the parliament building have been loud and boisterous but peaceful. But despite their color, there is the other side to the demonstrations _ the increased demand for food, water and toilets to accommodate the thousands of people who turned out to support cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and popular cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

LAHORE, Pakistan, Aug. 22 — Huge anti-government demonstrations in Pakistan entered their second week with thousands of protesters surrounding and blockading — peacefully, so far — the parliament building in Islamabad.

Two groups of protesters from different opposition parties first converged on the capital Aug. 15, demanding resignations of Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Mian Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of the Punjab state.

The public face of the demonstrations is the charismatic cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, which placed third in last year’s elections. The other party, Pakistan Awami Tehreek, led by a moderate Islamic cleric, Professor Allama Maulana Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, won no seats at all in the vote.

Khan claims that last year’s election — which marked only the second democratic passage of power in Pakistan’s six-plus decades of independence — was tainted by massive voter fraud. He has not, however, released any evidence to back the charges, which were not supported by international observers. Khan says he will make his evidence public only after the government resigns.

The situation in Islamabad as night fell Friday was tense but not violent. The demonstrators scored a victory on Thursday as the Supreme Court denied the government’s request to order the protesters to disperse, but demonstrations around the country have been broken up by police, with many arrests. More than a dozen protesters were killed in a clash with police in June.

Khan has been a controversial figure in Pakistani politics since 1996, when the PTI (whose name translates as “Movement for Justice”) was founded with the former captain of the national cricket team as its head. He and Sharif have clashed repeatedly in recent years, and — besides voter fraud — he has charged the government with corruption, nepotism and mismanagement of the economy. A young PTI activist, a schoolteacher who asked not to be identified by name, said she wanted to help “break this never-ending chain of nepotism and family rule” by Sharif’s party. “Peaceful demonstration is my fundamental human right and the constitution grants me the right to raise my voice against injustice and corruption.”

But it was unclear how the standoff could end, peacefully or otherwise. Sharif has proposed an independent commission to investigate the election, but Khan, ensconced in a mobile command post outside parliament, says his nonnegotiable demand is for the government to step down. “You can spend your whole life in the container but Nawaz Sharif will not resign,” the prime minister’s daughter tweeted on Aug. 20.

The situation “is extremely worrying,” said Sajjad Ahmed, a prominent artist and academic from Lahore. “With each passing moment, the delay in [finding a] solution increases the chances of instability and potential violence.” The occupation is taking place against the backdrop of a crackdown against terrorist groups in the northern part of the country and Pakistan’s ongoing tensions with its various neighbors. The one bright spot, and the one point on which almost everyone in the country can agree, is the unlikelihood — and undesirability — of a military coup replacing the elected government. The country has been down that road before, and this time, for better or worse, the politicians are going to have to figure things out for themselves.