Although I am not CFR’s South Asia expert, the past month of protests in Pakistani by Pakistani politician Imran Khan, who has been camped out close to parliament along with his supporters, brings to mind many other similar protests that have happened in Asia in the past ten years—in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other countries. What is notable about these new types of street protests, which Khan’s demonstrations fall into, is that unlike decades of protests that called for various reforms to political systems, these protests actually in many ways are designed to subvert and possibly overthrow democracy. Indeed, the region, and some other developing nations like Egypt, has witnessed the rise of anti-democratic protests.
In Khan’s case, he and his supporters are camped out near parliament because they claim that the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is illegitimate because of irregularities in last year’s parliamentary elections and because Sharif’s government has done a poor job on many policy fronts, including dealing with flooding in Kashmir, Pakistan’s constant energy crisis, and the Pakistani Taliban. All of these complaints have some truth to them. Sharif’s government has stumbled repeatedly. Pakistani elections are notorious for fraud, and Sharif’s party is hardly clean, though most outside observers concluded that, despite serious irregularities in last year’s vote, Sharif’s party won the elections last year.
Holding protests to highlight a government’s failings or the corruption of the electoral process is a normal part of a vibrant democracy, but Khan’s protests are, potentially, much more damaging, since they seek remedies outside of the normal democratic process. Instead of highlighting the Sharif government’s flaws and rallying support for the opposition (Khan’s party and others) for the next election, Khan is taking the protests much farther. He is trying to make the capital—and thus the country—ungovernable and thus bring down a democratically elected government through extra-constitutional means. Some of Khan’s supporters also have suggested that the protests will pave the way for the military to take power again and restore better government, in a country whose entire history has been plagued by military coups. A coup would be a disaster; Sharif’s ascendance was the first democratic transition in Pakistani history.
In these ways, the Khan protests resemble the street demonstrations that took place in Thailand between the fall of 2013 and May 2014, when the Thai military, about as fond as the Pakistani military of putsches, staged a coup. Thailand is now run by a junta with a thin veneer of civilian officials, and the junta government has launched a harsh crackdown on civil liberties and political freedoms. Before the coup, middle class and wealthy Thai protestors in Bangkok used many of the same strategies as Khan’s supporters to topple an elected—if somewhat venal and ineffective—government under then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. They tried to make parts of Bangkok ungovernable, invading government ministries and preventing civil servants from getting to work and elections from being held. Many of the Thai protesters also pushed for the military to step in, which in May it ultimately did, dealing an enormous blow to Thai democracy.
In other countries in Asia, like the Philippines and Indonesia, similar types of anti-democratic protests, which use the form of popular street demonstrations to achieve what are effectively anti-democratic results, have multiplied as well. In Indonesia, supporters of losing 2014 presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto rallied for weeks in an attempt to intimidate Indonesia’s election commission and top court to reverse the results of the election and call a new vote. (They failed, and Joko Widodo will be sworn in as Indonesia’s president in the fall.) Now, many of Prabowo’s supporters are rallying to push for a new law tabled in parliament (a law that, polls show, is very unpopular among Indonesians) that would get rid of direct elections for regional and local leaders across the archipelago, which would be a serious step back for Indonesian democracy and its (mostly) successful process of political decentralization. In the Philippines, demonstrators rallied in 2001—again, mostly rich and middle class men and women—in the streets of Manila in an attempt to force out the elected government of populist Prime Minister Joseph Estrada, or to get the military to remove Estrada. As in Thailand, they succeeded, and Estrada fled Malacanang Palace, with a push from the military, and gave up his presidency.
Hopefully, Khan and his allies will not achieve the same result.