Pakistan Seeks Potential Solution to Political Protests

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For the past several weeks, Pakistan has faced a set of dual protests that have sparked a political crisis. One protest, led by former cricket star turned politician Imran Khan, head of the PTI party, draws on Khan’s allegation of widespread rigging in the landmark 2013 elections. Khan’s demands include electoral reforms, a redo of the election, and, controversially, the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N party.

The other protest, led by Sufi cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, who heads the PAT party, seeks justice for followers killed and injured in a June incident at his headquarters. Qadri has demanded a full investigation, and also seeks the resignation of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, the Prime Minister’s brother. After marching to Islamabad and holding daily rallies, the protests eventually turned violent. While the violence subsided, and the army has mediated talks among the government, Khan and Qadri, the situation has not yet abated.

These crises come at a difficult time for Pakistan. The country is dealing with massive floods after heavy monsoon rains. Furthermore, because of the protests, the center of Islamabad has been shut down for more than month, freezing legislative and ministerial activity in the capital. As a result, the government has been unable to make any progress on meeting an extensive set of conditions to keep badly-needed funds flowing under an IMF loan facility. Moreover, the much-awaited visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping has been postponed.

Over the past year, as shown by CIPE’s partner PRIME, an Islamabad-based think tank, the government has made only limited progress toward implementing an ambitious economic reform agenda, thus engendering widespread frustration. Against this backdrop, many observers worried that the military could seize power again, as it has done in the past, or at least seek greater influence. Citing a report from the US Congressional Research Service, there was fear that this could cause the US to withdraw crucially needed support.

While Khan has repeatedly promised his supporters that he will not leave the capital until Prime Minister Sharif steps down, PML-N has refused to accept this demand. In that refusal, it has secured the support of the other opposition parties, chiefly the PPP and MQM. Indeed, observers were heartened by the fact that during the height of the protests, despite the strong difference among the country’s political parties, there was a clear declaration of a commitment to keeping Pakistan’s democratic development on track by maintaining civilian rule.

At this point, the stage is set for a potential breakthrough and a resolution of the situation. PML-N claims to have agreed to a number of Khan’s demands, including forming a three-member Judicial Commission led by the Chief Justice to investigate the elections. Many analysts believe that Prime Minister Sharif should consider assuring the Chief Justice that if the Commission concludes that rigging took place, and if such irregularities brought PML-N to power, Sharif will ask the President to dissolve the Parliament and call for a fresh election.

Meanwhile, the situation around Qadri’s protest could also be resolved. To meet the cleric’s demands, the government has now agreed to open an investigation into the June events. While progress in investigating the case is slow, Punjab Chief Minister Sharif may act upon the advice of both PPP and MQM, as well as calls in the media, and step down until the inquiry is conducted and a report made public.

If both the Sharifs move swiftly, observers believe that Khan and Qadri will likely have no option but to call off the protests. PTI Members of Parliament will be expected to take back their resignations and members of both the upper and lower houses of Parliament will return to their constituencies to monitor relief work for victims of floods.

For its part, the army will likely be expected to redouble its anti-terror operations, while a 30,000-strong police force, mostly deployed from Punjab, will be expected to leave the capital to deal with a deteriorating security situation and help with flood recovery. It is then hoped that Qadri will return to his home in Canada and monitor the investigation remotely through his representatives. Prime Minister Sharif will be expected to give his full support to the Judicial Commission, and to not interfere with the investigation of the June incident in Lahore. There will also be pressure to keep members of his family away from day-to-day business of the government.

From the standpoint of many in the business community, while the situation looked to be on the edge of either chaos or a military takeover, there will be relief if the protests end with PML-N still in power. The business community clearly stands to benefit from a sustainable democratic system.

Assuming the country now stabilizes, it will be incumbent on the Finance Minister to ensure transparency in the appointment of the boards of directors and CEOs of 31 state-owned enterprises, the appointment of competent directors of autonomous and regulatory bodies, collection of taxes and reduced corruption, and improvements in the tax-to-GDP ratio.

Further, the finance ministers of the provinces will need to collect electricity and gas dues, and curb theft, so as to reduce so-called “circular debt,” which after initially falling when PML-N came to office has again to risen to 513 billion rupees($5.1 Billion). Finally, the Finance Minister will need to ensure the full autonomy of the State Bank of Pakistan, thus meeting one of the IMF’s key conditions. These changes are among the many needed for the government to implement its long-awaited economic reform agenda.

Moin Fudda is Country Director of CIPE Pakistan.

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