Published in the New York Times
Pakistan faces very big problems: a failing economy; a Taliban insurgency; and persistent tension with India, which has resulted again in exchanges of cross-border fire. The country’s leaders and citizens obviously need to join in common cause to put the country on a steadier course.
Alas, this is Pakistan. For the past two weeks, thousands of protesters in Islamabad have been demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His critics have every right to express their views peacefully. But forcing his resignation is the last thing Pakistan needs.
It would further polarize society, weaken the fragile democratic institutions and strengthen a powerful military, which says it wants to be out of politics but has regularly staged coups and otherwise sought to control civilian governments for three decades.
Mr. Sharif came to office in a parliamentary election 15 months ago, the first peaceful, democratic transition of power between civilian leaders in the country’s history. It was a hopeful moment; some 60 percent of voters turned out, and most people seemed willing to accept his victory.
The current anti-Sharif anger is being stoked by two men. Imran Khan, a prominent cricketer turned politician, wants new elections. Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, a cleric of the Sufi Islam sect, is pushing for the creation of a unity government. The protesters have demanded electoral reforms and Mr. Sharif’s removal because of alleged corruption in the 2013 election. Some believe that the army, which has an uneasy history with Mr. Sharif, has had a hand in the crisis. Reports that Mr. Khan and Mr. Qadri are negotiating with the army chief of staff are unsettling.
Mr. Sharif’s brief tenure has been marked by sectarian tensions, power outages, insurgent-related violence and a failure to deliver on campaign promises of economic revival. He has also named cronies to high posts. But forcing him out now and in this way is not the answer. A smarter approach is to make democratic processes work through reforms to prevent electoral fraud and rampant cronyism. It will also require negotiation and compromise.
The United States, preoccupied with crises elsewhere, has shown little urgency in trying to calm the situation, even though Pakistan’s stability is crucial to regional order — especially as American troops withdraw from Afghanistan. It should be pressing Pakistan’s army, in particular, to reject any idea of staging a coup. Mr. Sharif should resolve to govern better while the military focuses on its primary concern, defeating the Taliban threat.