From the comfort of living rooms around the world, it looks like chaos again in Pakistan. Dozens of innocents have been slaughtered around the country over the past week; the worst attack, a double suicide bombing, hitting members of the minority Shia Muslim sect in the western city of Quetta, bordering Afghanistan. The provincial government in the region has been sacked and Governor’s rule imposed.
On the other side of the country, Pakistani and Indian forces have engaged in a steady volley of tit-for-tat skirmishes along the contested Line of Control in Kashmir, with an unverifiable number of soldiers killed on both sides. The Indian press has had a frenzy following unconfirmed reports that one Indian soldier was beheaded, a claim the Pakistanis deny.
In Islamabad, the Supreme Court has issued an arrest warrant against Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on charges of corruption, the second such warrant issued by the court against a sitting prime minister in less than a year.
And if that isn’t enough, in the midst of it all, a new saviour is rising: Mohammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a naturalized Canadian who’s managed to convince thousands of his followers to bed down on the doorstep of the Pakistani parliament and demand the resignation of the current, democratically-elected government, mere months before a scheduled election.
It would appear things couldn’t get any worse for a nation already in the throes of economic disintegration, suffering an acute power shortage, recovering from a devastating flood in 2010, and trying to salvage whatever credibility it has left on the international stage.
And yet, it all feels too familiar.
The old themes are back: corruption, incompetence, threat of a military takeover, terrorist violence. The Pakistani media is graciously playing its role as the bastion of conspiracy theories, blaming the turmoil on everything from the CIA and Blackwater (the U.S. security firm which actually doesn’t exist anymore) to the ever-present deep state, run by a Machiavellian mix of elite industrialists and the military establishment.
Naturally, the international media has taken the bait, though admittedly with less vigor than in the past. This perhaps, is understandable – one can only print so many stories about Pakistan on the precipice before it starts to sound like old news.
At the same time, however, something is different. The families of the victims of those killed in Quetta held a dramatic protest, sitting through sub-zero temperatures in Quetta alongside the bodies of their loved ones until the federal government took action. And, it took action.
In both New Delhi and Islamabad, leaders worked frantically to minimize the damage done by the border skirmishes to the improving relations between the two countries, resisting the pressure from the media, as well as hard line groups, to take a more hawkish line.
In Islamabad, the last time a prime minister was taken to task by the Supreme Court, the government convinced him to resign, transitioning to the current prime minister smoothly and democratically. The court’s latest decision will likely not impact anything considering the slow pace of the judiciary in Pakistan and the upcoming elections, slated for May.
As for the thousands of people parked in front of the parliament, no one seems quite sure what to make of it. Its leader, a 62-year old Sufi who famously issued a fatwa against terrorism in 2010, had promised to turn Islamabad into the world’s biggest Tahrir Square. That never materialized and looks likely not to. The government has warned the protestors that they face the threat of a terrorist attack if they remain exposed but looks unlikely to take action against them.
What then, is actually happening in Pakistan?
Lost in all the hubbub is one basic fact, a potential game changer in the history of Pakistan’s badly choreographed dance with democracy: the current government is on the cusp of being the first ever Pakistani government to complete its full term. That may not seem like much to Canadians, but in Pakistan, where democracy has traditionally played the role of substitute to the starting line up of military dictatorship, it is no small feat.
Why then all the turmoil? What does it mean? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps this is the usual noises emanating from a nation struggling to make its democratic institutions work in the lead up to that most important of events – an election. Perhaps Mr. Tahir-ul-Qadri is right in demanding a more honest leadership, though the Indian example hurts his argument: there, political corruption is as endemic as it is in Pakistan but the government still functions.
The difference in India is that the democratic process has gone through enough cycles that democracy has become entrenched in the political consciousness. In Pakistan, that cycle is about to complete itself, for the first time.
The importance of that milestone cannot be understated in a country with so many skeletons in its closet. What’s promising in Pakistan is how far it has come over the past decade: it now has an independent (though occasionally over-zealous) judiciary, a free (though sometimes inflammatory) press, a politically weakened (though still potent) military. Taken together, the progress made is one step in a long journey, a journey that ultimately has no end. Democracy is not a destination, as the U.S. and Canada have learned through the sometimes-unruly histories of their own democracies. It is an ongoing process. And in Pakistan, so close to completing its first democratic transition, that process needs to continue.
Adnan Khan is a writer and photographer based in Islamabad