On Aug. 14, the eve of its 68th Independence Day, Pakistan’s fragile democracy plunged into another period of turbulence as two sets of anti-government marches began in Lahore and made their way to Islamabad. One was led by Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), which claimed that last year’s general elections were marred by widespread electoral fraud and demanded Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s resignation, an investigation of electoral rigging and fresh elections. The other was led by Tahir-ul Qadri and his Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT), and called for the dissolution of the national parliament and provincial assemblies. Qadri, who had already called to overthrow the government earlier this year, found his cause strengthened after the Punjab government, run by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), refused to lodge a report over a police attack on his supporters that killed 14 people and injured 100 two months ago.
For over three weeks, Islamabad has been gripped by these two sit-ins, which turned violent last week as protesters threatened to storm the prime minister’s residence and broke into and occupied the Parliament House lawns. This show of street power, while ultimately unable to overthrow the government, has renewed pressure on Sharif to deliver on campaign promises and restore the reputation of state institutions, while increasing the risk of a greater imbalance between civil and military authority.
A key question that emerges from this political crisis is why were these two parties, especially the PTI, ineffective in forcing out Sharif, despite outbreaks of street violence and a sense of chaos in the capital? For both parties, the answer lies in their lack of national support, which translates into a weak showing on the streets.