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Still sitting for change

Marketa Hulpachova and Alex Macbeth
Imran Khan and his PTI party have held sit-ins in front of parliament in Islamabad calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for more than three months now. But can Khan and the PTi force a change…
2.12.2014  |  Islamabad
Afridi having his face painted at a rally in Islamabad. (Photos: Alex Macbeth)
Afridi having his face painted at a rally in Islamabad. (Photos: Alex Macbeth)

The bulbs of dozens of stadium lights reflect in the eyes of Abdul Qayum Afridi as a face painter brushes the young protester's cheeks with green and red, the same colour paraded by thousands of other supporters of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Afridi, 28, is from the troubled Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a hotbed of tribal militancy that has historically stood outside Pakistan's mainstream political order.

Despite his background, Afridi blended into the rainbow crowd that gathered on the steps of the Parliament building in Islamabad. In a concert-like setting complete with DJs and popcorn stands, Pakistanis of various ethnic stripes swayed to rock music and chanted protest slogans supporting Imran Khan, the charismatic former cricketer whose calls for fighting systemic corruption and increasing social inclusiveness resonate with a broad spectrum of voters.

More than three months after the sit-ins began, they are a recurring event in Islamabad and Imran Khan is threatening to lockdown Lahore on December 4 if his demand for an electoral recount is not met. Just over three weeks ago a Pakistani court labelled Khan and his ally Qadri as "absconders" following an enquiry into an alleged attack on parliamentary premises by PTI supporters on August 15 this year.

Cricket icon

Nevertheless, Khan is widely seen as a national icon for his captaincy of the Pakistani cricket team during its only ever ICC World Cup victory in 1992. More than 20 years later, the sports idol is revered the same way by a new generation waving flags and chanting anthems, only this time Khan is playing politics. The 62-year old's call for mass civil disobedience pushed thousands of disillusioned Pakistanis on a march to Islamabad in August, where sit-ins have been held every night for the last few months. Hundreds of thousands more PTI supporters continue to hold sit-ins across Pakistan, including in the cities of Karachi and Lahore, calling for the overthrow of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his own Punjabi homeland.

PTI is calling for Sharif to face vote-rigging allegations and is demanding an 11-point electoral reform outline be accepted by the government as a condition to end the sit-ins. Khan's supporters hope a new election will be held next year. 

PTI's popularity has much to do with incumbent Prime Minister Sharif's confrontations with Pakistan's powerful military, say analysts. “The Army is unhappy with Sharif for instigating peace talks with India, initially discussing a new Afghan Taliban strategy of negotiated settlement and placing [former president] Pervez Musharraf on trial,” says T.V. Paul, a McGill University professor and author of the book: The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World.  The military, traditionally the kingmaker in Pakistani politics, has tacitly allowed the protests to continue, leading many to suggest Khan has the army's backing.

Roots in the wild west

A container similar to the one Khan and Qadri lived in when the sit-ins began.

The PTI grew its grassroots support in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where it swept to power in in last year's elections promising wide-scale social reforms and a concerted drive to quell the insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives and displaced millions. In a far-flung region where ethnic Pashtun ties to bordering Afghanistan are often stronger than state capacity, the PTI led coalition introduced a mobile court to address the administrative backlog in rural areas, delivering justice in 120 cases since the programme's introduction last year. 

Subsidies for education followed, including a special grant for female students in insecure districts, aimed at strengthening education opportunities for young girls like this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner and education activist Malala Yousafzai. One year on, the PTI's reforms in KP have met with a lukewarm response from residents who expected the PTI to build roads, establish health facilities and eradicate corruption within 90 days, perhaps a naive pre-election promise. As the PTI challenges the legitimacy of the national government, its coalition in KP is facing the same challenge from provincial opposition parties. 

Critics also say Khan is backed by elements of the same feudal political structure he promises to dismantle. “What Khan is offering at the moment is not a dramatic shift in political force. He speaks of reforming an exploitative system, but the forces behind him are almost the same as you would find in other parties--big landowners, faces of the real estate mafia," says Ayesha Siddiqa, an Islamabad-based security analyst. "The PTI is not offering anything different, so what would be the benefits of changing the lot?” 

PTI officials hope its efforts to reduce terror attacks and quell the insurgency in KP and FATA will transcend its appeal onto the national stage. In the provincial capital of Peshawar, the number of people killed by bomb blasts stood at 90 as of Oct. 2, compared with a total of 300 people killed last year, according to data gathered by the South Asia Terrorism Portal. While the military’s insurgency crackdown in neighboring FATA is partially responsible for the improved security situation, the PTI-led government has also contributed by reforming the police force and arming officers with new equipment and legal bases for snuffing out bombs, staking out terrorist hideouts and flagging suspicious vehicles.

Among populations oppressed by drone strikes and tribal militants, popular sentiments against the War on Terror provide the PTI with a potent platform. A staunch opponent of US military intervention in Pakistan, Khan held a 90-day sit-in Peshawar this year demanding an end to the drone attacks. He has been reluctant to criticize insurgents after deadly attacks on civilians and has even advocated the Pakistani Taliban be given a political office. 

“Khan is looking to resolve insurgency issues locally,” says Afridi, who divides his time between Peshawar and FATA, and is one of a few dozen journalists covering the isolated province. “By engaging local Taliban commanders, he is looking to play a role in the security environment.”

FATA morgana?

FATA is central to Khan's hopes. The semi-autonomous region is still governed by a colonial document from 1901 which prohibits the right to appeal or the right to found a media organisation. The most recent offensive by the Pakistani military since June to drive out insurgent groups such as Tehreek-e Taliban and Lashkar-e Islam has displaced hundreds of thousands more people in North and South Waziristan, two of seven 'agencies' in the tribal areas.

“The military cannot clear a 30-kilometre area of insurgents in six years, while millions of displaced people are crying for the loss of their homes and villages.” FATA activist.

Khan hopes he can wedge himself between the constitutional powers of the president and the governor of neighboring KP province—who personally administers FATA on behalf of the president—and the army, whose ground offensives continues to bulldoze whole towns and villages. “The military cannot clear a 30-kilometre area of insurgents in six years, while millions of displaced people are crying for the loss of their homes and villages,” says a local activist, who for security reasons preferred not to be named.

After years of isolation under the political control of local mullahs, FATA’s colonial-era ruling system changed with a 2013 law that allowed party-affiliated candidates in FATA to stand for Parliament. PTI was one of only two national parties to win a seat in FATA, giving Khan's party a voice in the country's most insecure region. FATA's tenuous political status means the region is not represented in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's provincial Parliament, although the PTI party hopes FATA will become annexed to KP province soon, one of several proposed reforms in the National Assembly. 

“Khan may be able to capture the war fatigue”

“[Khan] may be able to capture the war fatigue, the voters who are tired of the system, the people living in tribal areas who want to be a part of the state. If he prevails in KP, he is also likely to get greater support in FATA,” says Ayesha Siddiqa. The army is pursuing its own strategy to strengthen its foothold in FATA, initiating a programme to recruit 14,000 FATA men into Pakistan's army.

Ulam Mohammad selling hats at the PTI sit-ins in Islamabad.

Many FATA residents have left the tribal belt not to join the army, but Khan's rallies in Islamabad. Ulam Mohammad Khan, 21, from North Waziristan, has been selling PTI hats for over a month at the Islamabad sit-in, earning $5-10 a day. The father of two says he attends PTI's rallies because he believes Imran Khan can resolve key economic issues such as inflation. "I'm sitting here to secure a good future for my kids," says Mohammad, who adds he has been jailed five times for attending PTI rallies.

Khan's supporters have faced their share of adversity during their steady advance into the so-called Red Zone, a highly secured area in Islamabad that houses key government institutions, including the house of Parliament. While Sharif initially strove to prevent police crackdowns, an Aug. 31 protest claimed three lives and left 400 more injured after thousands of protesters attempted to storm the prime minister's residence, wielding sticks and dismantling police barricades. 

Army is kingmaker

In the murky world of Pakistani politics, the pro-reform crowds chanting "Go, Nawaz, Go" may prove detrimental to democratization, experts say. Throughout the succession of Pakistan's deposed civilian governments, the army has historically made ruling parties rise and fall based on their adherence to conservative policies that guard military interests. Sharif, who rose to power in a landslide election victory deemed "reasonably fair" by international observers, challenged the army's interests on both domestic and foreign policy issues. With Khan's PTI pressuring Sharif in the streets, the Army is again kingmaker. It has already forced Sharif to back-peddle on most of his landmark policies, and is now in a position to oust his government altogether by backing the popular movement. 

While his supporters see him as a pioneer of social justice and systemic change, analysts say Imran Khan may inadvertently set back the country's constitutional maturation. "In the volatile political environment of Pakistan, one cannot change the system through street protests. One must change it through elections," says Paul. "Sharif, whatever his faults, is a democratically elected prime minister who wants to restrain the military...Now we are going back to the same old process, with politicians spoiling the system on a bed of military support."

--Farid Shinwari contributed reporting from Peshawar.