The history of Pakistani street-politics | Pakistan Today

The history of Pakistani street-politics

A flashback of political movements of the past

As Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) braces to take it to the streets against the PML-N government, the political temperature is escalating rapidly. PTI chairman Imran Khan, while speaking to a rally last month, gave a one moth deadline to the government to probe into alleged election rigging and announced a ‘tsunami march’ if the government failed to comply with the demand. While many remain sceptical about the timing of this announcement, a full-scale movement can actually trouble the Sharif government seriously. However, it will not be the first time that an opposition-led movement will be launched to oust a sitting government.

Pakistan verily has a dynamic political history and street politics has always been a crucial part of it. Protests, processions, long marches and sit-ins have occurred during military dictatorships and civilian regimes alike. Sometimes largely peaceful and sometimes marred by bullets and blood, protest movements have achieved varying results in the past. While Pakistan is on the brink of another season of street politics, it is pertinent to look at the political movements of the past and their results. Following is a chronological flashback of such movements:

The first significant political turmoil took place between 1956 and 1958. Upon the passage of first constitution of the country by the constituent assembly in 1956, Maj Gen Iskander Mirza became the first president of Pakistan. However, Mirza subsequently developed grievances with the parliament as the 1956 constitution provided a parliamentary form of government, presided over by the prime minister. Mirza sought more power in the democratic set up and tried to increasingly control the prime minister. This resulted in three prime ministers — Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Ibrahim Ismail Chundrigar — resigning from office in quick succession; within a period of two years. Sir Feroz Khan Noon was the prime minister in 1958 when the opposition to Iskander Mirza started to escalate.

While the tussle between the president and parliament persisted, politicians started street demonstrations against Mirza. Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan, an important political figure, was also among the leaders of the protests. As pressure mounted on him, Mirza abrogated the constitution on 7th October 1958, dissolved the parliament and imposed martial law, making General Ayub Khan the chief martial law administrator. However, Mirza himself lost the office when he was removed by Ayub Khan two weeks later, who then assumed the role of the president and became the chief executive of the state. The country then had to wait for 13 years to see its next prime minister.

The second most significant movement was against Ayub Khan himself. The 1965 war was the starting point of sorts. Industrial development virtually halted after the war and inflation and unemployment hiked up. Simultaneously, the cry for democracy from different sections of society started to grow as well. Students were at the forefront of this movement. The National Student Federation (NSF) launched protests in major cities when Ayub Khan decided to celebrate the ‘Decade of Development’ calling it a ‘Decade of Decadence’ instead.

Ayub tried to tackle the protests with use of force, which further emboldened the opposition. On 7 November 1968, police fired at a student rally in Rawalpindi, which resulted in the deaths of three students and fired up the protests against the government.

Ayub tried to tackle the protests with use of force, which further emboldened the opposition. On 7 November 1968, police fired at a student rally in Rawalpindi, which resulted in the deaths of three students and fired up the protests against the government. Mainstream politicians also joined in the movement. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had formed his own party in 1967, became a key opposition figure. Other sections of society, like industrial workers — mainly due to high inflation and unemployment — intellectuals and journalists also joined the movement.

“It was a movement which had an avid involvement of a diverse cross-section of the society”, said Muhammad Waseem, professor of Political Science at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Ayub Khan subsequently lost support of the military establishment as well and in the face of the strong opposition, had to resign in March 1969, transferring the power to Yahya Khan, who later handed over power to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after his victory in the general elections.

Another very important opposition movement was organised in 1977 by the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) against the then prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto’s rise to power was nothing less than a glamorous victory over the forces of status-quo, however his fall PNA leader Abdul Wali Khan with Bhutto was equally anticlimactic. PNA’s movement was similar to the currently evolving situation in that it was also initiated due to election rigging. Bhutto’s PPP won the general elections of 1977 with a handsome majority. However, the elections followed the allegations of rigging from different parties. The main opposition came from nine different parties which had contested elections against PPP in an alliance called PNA. PNA rejected the outcome; its members boycotted assembly sessions and staged demonstrations against the government.

Many analysts believe that there was clear evidence of rigging on a few seats however Bhutto would have won the elections even without the rigging. PNA held rallies and processions across the country and demanded Bhutto’s resignation. The prominent leaders of PNA included Khan Abdul Wali Khan, Abdul Madudi, Asghar Khan and Zahoor Ilahi. It is largely believed that PNA was funded by the influential business class that was enraged at Bhutto’s socialist policies.

“It wasn’t just about the rigging; it became religious soon, calling for an Islamic system of governance or Nizam-e-Mustafa”, said Mehdi Hassan, a seasoned journalist, while talking to Pakistan Today.

As PNA increased the pressure, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto tried to curb the movement using state power. However, popular support for PNA kept increasing and Bhutto finally had to negotiate with its leaders. An agreement, it is said, was reached between PNA and Bhutto, but the military leadership decided to intervene. On July 5 1997, Ziaul Haq overthrew the government, dissolved the assemblies and sent Bhutto behind bars.

Next in line was the movement against Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship. Formed in 1981, the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) was an alliance of certain left-wing political parties that called for an end to the dictatorship of Ziaul Haq. Mainly fuelled by the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the MRD was led by the PPP and was mainly active in Sindh. Some of the leaders of PNA also joined the MRD later on. It was active for years prior to the elections of 1985. It carried out protests in major and interior cities of Sindh. However, Zia gave it an iron-handed response. The army was used to curb the demonstrations in many areas. There were violent incidents of shooting at the protestors and a considerable loss of civilian lives was reported at several occasions.

Mehdi Hassan, while commenting on MRD added, “It was mainly restricted to Sindh and was almost non-existent in Punjab”, and therefore could not pose any serious threat to the government.

The movement withered away upon getting divided on the issue of participating in elections announced by Zia. While some parties wanted to contest the elections, PPP believed it would only legitimise Zia’s regime. The turnout, however, in 1985 elections was significant despite PPP’s boycott.

The 90’s decade was, politically, one of the most happening periods in the country’s history. In 1992, the late Benazir Bhutto announced a long march against the government of Nawaz Sharif, levelling allegations of corruption and also dubbing the 1990 elections “rigged”. The long march that took place in November 1992 saw the participation of various renowned leaders including Qazi Hussain Ahmad, Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan and Muhammad Khan Junejo.

The prominent leaders of PNA included Khan Abdul Wali Khan, Abdul Madudi, Asghar Khan and Zahoor Ilahi. It is largely believed that PNA was funded by the influential business class that was enraged at Bhutto’s socialist policies. 

However, the Sharif government using state power cracked down on it and arrested several leaders. The late governor Salman Taseer was also amongst the prisoners of this march and was reportedly tortured by the police. This march could not achieve anything significant and was successfully suppressed by the government. However, Benazir threatened to march towards Islamabad with thousands of supporters again in 1993. By this time, corruption of the Sharif government was criticised in many circles. Upon the increase in pressure from the opposition and a fall in popular support for Nawaz Sharif, the army chief Abdul Waheed Khan showed him the curtains as Sharif resigned in July 1993.

LUMS’s Muhammad Waseem believes that Benazir’s movement had little to with Nawaz’s exit and “it was mainly the military leadership that wanted Sharif to go”.

In 2008, the lawyers’ community took to the streets when General Musharraf deposed the Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and sixty other judges. The long march of 2008 was mainly a display of activism by the civil society. Although massively attended, it could not achieve the restoration of judges. In 2009, a second long march was announced during the government of Asif Ali Zardari for the same purpose, however this time Nawaz Sharif decided to lead the march from Lahore.

It is important to note that in February 2009 the Abdul Hammed Dogar-led Supreme Court had disqualified Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif, dismissing his government in Punjab. The March 2009 long march was also well-attended with lawyers now having direct support of the political community. However, as the march was in progress, the Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in a televised speech on March 16 2009 announced the restoration deposed judges, resulting in the long march being called off.

The most recent display of street power was done by the head of Pakistan Awami Tehreek, Tahirul Qadri. With a complete overhaul of the electoral system and the end of the government of Pakistan Peoples Party on his agenda, Qadri marched on the capital with thousands of his supporters and staged a sit-in for a few days. However, the sit-in was called off after successful negotiations between Qadri and team of government’s representatives. The negotiations and the long march, in retrospect, achieved nothing.

Hassan Askari Rizvi, a senior political analyst, believes that long marches have “hardly achieved anything substantial in the past”.

“Street politics does not strengthen democracy, it only weakens the government,” he told Pakistan Today. He said Imran Khan can succeed in “destabilising the government through the long march but cannot ensure any reforms”.

But with Khan’s PTI poised to launch its ‘tsunami march’ on the capital, it can be said that tougher times await the PML-N government ahead. However, whether a display of street power will result in the reformation of electoral system is highly doubtful. Not all the movements in the past achieved desired results.

Imran Khan has compared the time leading up to the D-day of 14th August to a chess game. What he must be wary of is that any wrong move here might well deliver checkmate to the democratic system as well as his own politics.

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