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Lawmaker Says Protests Are Testing Pakistani Democracy

Senator Afrasiab Khattak
Senator Afrasiab Khattak

Senator Afrasiab Khattak, a Pakistani lawmaker from the opposition Awami National Party, says that the ongoing antigovernment protests in Islamabad are a reaction to the malaise afflicting Pakistani democracy.

In an interview with RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Pamir Sahill, Khattak said that despite a democratic constitution that enshrines representative rule, Pakistan has yet to decide if elected politicians have a real mandate to govern or if the country's powerful military holds the monopoly on power.

RFE/RL: What factors do you see behind the nearly month-long protests in the Pakistani capital?

Afrasiab Khattak: [Seemingly], the protests are against vote rigging in last year's election. In reality,[one of the two protesting] parties have been part of the parliament for more than a year. They have been enjoying the perks and privileges of being lawmakers. Ironically, they now call the same parliament a fraud. [The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Party] even leads the administration in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

This crisis, however, has raised a key question, which is whether or not the elected institutions have the mandate to govern, or if some powerful but unelected institutions are entitled to rule. We have been grappling with this question after the dictator General Zia-ul Haq imposed military rule in 1977. Our constitution clearly says that elected politicians are mandated to govern, but in reality we have multiple power centers in the country.

We see the same clique behind the current unrest. They didn't like the first peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to another last year. That transition highlighted the strength of democratic stability in Pakistan. These protests [led by cricketer-turned politician] Imran Khan [and conservative cleric Tahir-ul Qadri] appears to be effort to wreck the entire democratic system.

RFE/RL: In recent days we saw Khan's former deputy Javed Hashmi and others claim that Pakistan's powerful military was behind these protests and is still involved in manipulating the country's politics, while the military rejects such claims. What is your assessment of its role?

Khattak: It is difficult to establish that the military is behind this in its entirety. It seems unlikely. But it is possible that certain individuals and elements were involved in it. In addition, Javed Hashmi is a credible politician and an important leader in Khan's party.

You might have noticed that the protests appeared to be heading for a collapse after the military responded to Hashmi’s allegations by saying that it was not orchestrating the protests.

RFE/RL: Some Pakistani observers have called these protests a soft coup. Do you agree with them?

Khattak: I agree only partially. This is because while these protests paralyzed the government and highlighted its weaknesses, they also underscored the strength of democracy. Pakistan was bound to [face a] fight for democracy. So it is part of the democratic evolution in Pakistan. We saw that all the political parties and the parliament united to strengthen democracy.

RFE/RL: Your party governed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province for five years before the 2013 election. What is your party’s view of the protests?

Khattak: We were the worst victims during the past election. Everybody knows that our hands and feet were tied during that contest [because of the Taliban threats and attacks]. We expressed our concerns and protested the uneven contest, but we accepted the election results because we argued that the democratic process must move forward. This is why we support demands for election reforms, but we are against dismantling the parliament and forcing the elected prime minister to resign.

RFE/RL: Is Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's governing party, The Pakistan Muslim League, meeting popular expectations, or they too have serious problems?

Khattak: This government made many mistakes. They paid little attention to the parliament. In the senate, we protested Sharif's year-long absence. This administration shunned consultations, particularly with the parliament. We hope they will address such issues once the current crisis is over.