What do marches on Islamabad mean?

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By Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

Fazl ur Rehman’s protest march is not the first of its kind but it sure is the latest in a series of marches and agitations seeking to dislodge the government in Pakistan. It is too early to say whether Rehman will succeed in making Prime Minister Imran Khan resign or be faced with an embarrassing retreat, but repeated agitations do indicate some serious weaknesses, especially in the state’s political system. If democratic state institutions like the Parliament, the Election Commission and the multi-layered courts are unable to address the issues which lead to agitation and disrupt the workings of the state, then there must be a deep-seated problem in the overall architecture of the system. 

To begin with, these street agitations, long marches and sit-ins are a clear manifestation of a low and weakening trust in the country’s institutions, especially by the political leadership. Neither PTI in 2014 nor JUI-F in 2019 approached the election commission or the courts of law with their complaints of large-scale election rigging. 

Rather, they resorted to long marches and sit-ins and in the process transformed public opinion to become deeply negative towards the commission, especially after the sustained sit-in by Imran Khan. 

Now, institutions are losing their prestige because of their inaction. Two examples should suffice: A foreign funding case involving the PTI has been pending before the ECP and the courts for the last two years. Time and again, Rehman has cited this case as an example of the ECP’s ineffectiveness. Another example of institutional inaction is the performance of the parliamentary committee formed to probe the alleged rigging in the 2018 elections. That committee has not even been able to adopt an agreed terms of reference and has been practically dormant for the last year.

ISLAMABAD: Nov01 –Chief of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam’ Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Opposition parties leader Shahbaz Sharif, and PPP leader Nayar Bukhari and others waving to activists during an anti-government march at H-9 Ground, Peshawar Morr in federal capital.

While democratic institutions suffer from inaction, the narrative of ‘the establishment’ deciding election results has gained currency. This perception too, prompts political parties to show strength on the streets.       

Another weakness of the system in Pakistan which promotes the culture of agitation is a tendency of governments to govern without including the opposition. Inclusion, in fact is a far shot in Pakistani politics, with the opposition often actively silenced or oppressed. 

And when oppositions feel the noose tightening around them, often they have no option but to react through street agitation. The JUI-F Azadi March supported by the country’s opposition parties seems also, to be a reaction of pressures applied by the government over the last year, which saw several senior political opposition leaders behind bars and many others anticipating a similar fate. 

No matter the specific reasons for an agitation, almost always, it manifests the weakness of state structure and its democratic norms. Each agitation leads to a further weakening of the state as it promotes instability and uncertainty in the country. The on-going sit-in by JUI-F has so far been orderly and peaceful. Though it is estimated that Rehman has mobilized one of the largest numbers of followers for a march on Islamabad, with committed participants, he has been openly criticized for alleging the interference of external forces in the election process. And if the government continues to use harsh language against him, Rehman may get aggressive in his protest. If a serious channel of communication is established however, and some kind of understanding is reached about the fairness of future elections free from any interference, Rehman may be credited with a huge breakthrough and for ushering in a period of political stability.

(Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.)