Nawaz Sharif scored a resounding victory in Pakistan’s national elections in May 2013.

Just 15 months later, his government is fighting for its life.

Thousands of protesters are converging on Pakistan’s capital. Their leaders–cricketer-turned-opposition politician Imran Khan and Canada-based cleric Tahir ul-Qadri–have vowed not to leave Islamabad until the government steps down.

Now, anti-government marches are common in Pakistan; one took place as recently as June. And crowd numbers to date are far from the hundreds of thousands organizers had promised. Pakistan’s all-powerful military is also unlikely to use this protest as a pretext for a putsch; it has little interest in being saddled with the country’s unprecedented governance challenges.

But there are still good reasons to be concerned.

First, no one appears willing to back down. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Sharif–whose constant tussles with the military illustrate how he relishes a good political fight–announced that a Supreme Court commission would investigate allegations of election rigging, an accusation that Mr. Khan has made repeatedly since last year’s voting. But Mr. Sharif refuses to make any further concessions. Meanwhile, Mr. Qadri and Mr. Khan insist that the marchers will stay in Islamabad indefinitely, and Mr. Khan has rejected a government offer of dialogue. A Pakistani high court ruled this week that extended protests will not be permitted, which could set the stage for battles between security forces and marchers.

Second, the only thing that’s certain is uncertainty. It’s not clear how long demonstrators will attempt to stay and how the government will respond if marchers refuse to disperse. Other than categorical calls for the government’s ouster and new elections, the marcher’ intentions are vague. And the key personalities are unpredictable: Mr. Qadri vacillates between projecting himself as a man of peace and engaging in folksy talk (he says he prefers Tim Hortons coffee to Starbucks) to issuing fiery calls for revolution. Some of his supporters have reportedly resorted to violence.

Third, the military is restless. While military officials are not itching for a takeover, they’re also not relaxing. Like the protesters, the military harbors great hostility toward the government, thanks to disagreements over policy toward India, the Pakistani Taliban and the government’s decision to put former military leader Pervez Musharraf on trial. Unrest has already been reported between Khan supporters and ruling-party partisans. If it gets badly out of hand, Pakistan’s armed forces could pressure Mr. Sharif to call early elections and threaten to impose martial law if he refuses.

Fourth, terrorists may take advantage of the situation. Urban militancy is a clear danger in Pakistan–including in Islamabad, where the government believes the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda have set up new sleeper cells. Since the military launched an operation in the militant haven of North Waziristan in June, extremist fighters nationwide have been relatively quiet. But they may find huge crowds of innocents congregating in public spaces a target to tempting to pass up.

In short, what’s happening in Pakistan is no run-of-the-mill rally–especially in a nuclear-armed country with a history of volatility.

By Michael Kugelman is senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Source: Wall Street Journal

See also: Everything else we reported on Pakistan and its future (links below)

FP: How protests and the military are curbing Pakistan’s democracy

Pakistan 3rd biggest terrorist risk spot in the world

Pakistan ranks poorly on Global Innovation Index 2014

5 Pakistani banks: ABL, UBL, HBL, MCB, NBP get Stable rating

Guest post by Privatisation Minister Zubair on positive economic outlook

Moody’s revises Pakistan rating from negative to stable

China approves construction of 14 power projects in Pakistan

Pakistan #1 in positive perception change as an investment destination

Pakistan #4 best performing global stock market

Pakistan world’s least expensive country: WB

Pakistan #106 in Good Country Index

Pakistan is world’s 9th least peaceful country: 2014 GPI

Pakistan 10th most fragile country

Pakistan 15th most powerful military in the world

Pakistan, Iran most-negatively viewed countries

Total fertility rate falling in most world; Africa & Pakistan rising

South Asia world’s most corrupt region: TI

Pakistanis to have shorter lives as the world will live longer

Sorry state of medical practice in Pakistan

Pakistani culture through 6-D Model

Native languages in Pakistan

Also by Barrister Ameer Abbas Khan:

Will PMLN govt survive PTI/PAT onslaught?

PTI + PAT V State of Pakistan: use of force instead of courts or dialogue

Article 245: digging own grave?

No right to blame others!

Arsalan case against Imran on moral ground may not stand

To sue, or not to sue? Iftikhar Chaudhry answers this question

Will PTI’s threats of August march, PA dissolution help democracy?

Musharraf: Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall!

Is Qadri’s path constitutional & legal? No

A tale of two bigwigs in two judicial systems

Arrest of Altaf Hussain: A big deal? No.

Do not miss our widely-read Messed-Up Pakistan Series by Wali

How we messed up: A series this Ramadan by Wali

How future oriented are we?

Pakistan’s two value crimes no one talks about

  • Sawera saleem

    Uncertainty prevails!

    Terrorism can take place..

    Protestors might not stay for long and the march might end on settlements!