Daniel Markey recently wrote an article on the success of street protests in Pakistan?' (See Why street protests work in Pakistan?). His main arguments is that democratically elected leaders in Pakistan face such protests not only because they face very difficult challenges and weak political institutionalization but also because of their own tendencies to centralize power.
By rights, however, Sharif (and Zardari before him) should not face such a high deficit of popular legitimacy as the one that loomed over Musharraf's tenure. Whatever the flaws of national elections in 2008 and 2013, they were better than what came before, or at least no worse. It is hard to accept that the motivating energy behind the latest round of protests is truly a consequence of voting irregularities. No, today's opposition leaders Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri are opportunistically latching on to whatever charges can be leveled against Prime Minister Sharif and company. Vote rigging, like corruption, is a perennially effective club to wield against most Pakistani politicians and their parties.
Part of Sharif's present vulnerability to popular protests can be explained by his own policy missteps that have dissipated enthusiasm for his rule. His dealings with the army, for instance, have been rife with tensions over the Musharraf case and the timing of negotiations and military operations against the TTP. In addition, although Pakistan's economy is no worse off than it was before Sharif assumed office (and by many measures, it is probably stronger), the common Pakistani has seen little material benefit. To be fair, even the best schemes for new power plants and Chinese-financed infrastructure cannot be realized overnight, but decades of unfulfilled promises by Pakistani politicians have jaded the public. The summertime heat and persistent power outages undercut Sharif's appeal as a can-do businessman, his calling card in the last election.
Yet lots of democracies face setbacks; the anti-incumbent theme of "throwing the bums out" is a universal rallying cry. In countries where democratic institutions are firmly entrenched, however, opposition parties work through parliamentary and electoral systems to accomplish those ends. It is primarily in democratic systems where institutions are weak and ineffective that unconventional forms of political participation, like street protests, are the norm. At least, this is the principal finding of an insightful political analysis comparing democratic states across Latin America by the Inter-American Development Bank in 2009.
By this logic, Nawaz Sharif's main failing -- the one that makes him most vulnerable to street protest today -- is his lack of investment in the institutionalization of democratic politics. That deficit is indeed glaring. Sharif's critics are right to chastise his do-nothing parliament and hyper-centralization of political authority in the hands of a tiny group of cronies.
I argued in my comments that what Markey is saying is right but the role of Pakistan's military cannot be ignored. It is one of the main reasons why such protests (with proportionally very small number of people) succeed:
A more pertinent question is why such SMALL street protests work in Pakistan. The current protest marchers in Islamabad are around fifty thousand. Pakistan's population is more than 180 million. So, the question is why 0.003% of population can topple a government. Governing through parliament is important and there is no doubt that Nawaz Sharif' has centralized power but many other world leaders have a similarly centralized power and faced big protests and still continue to rule. Two prominent examples are Erdogan and Putin. Both these leaders have a centralized style of governance and faced proportionally bigger protests but still continue to rule.
It is true that in countries where democratic institutionalization is weak, unconventional forms of political participation (e.g. street protests) are the norm but do they topple governments? A pertinent example in that of Mexico where in 2006, there were large protests against vote rigging, similar to what is happening in Pakistan now. What was the end result? The Mexican government patiently waited and eventually protests ended.
There is also no need to resort to ruthless force as the Mexican example shows. Protesters in Mexico city camped for months. Pakistani government has to just wait and there is every reason to believe that Imran Khan supporters (who have a more valid case for protest) would fizzle out.
So, why Pakistani government is worried? The answer is history of military involvement in politics and the perception in Pakistan that military is not happy with Nawaz Sharif. This perception of military's displeasure emboldens Sharif's opponents and makes many others to hedge their bets or go against Sharif to protect their interests. For example, most of the news channels in Pakistan report news with a clear bias against Sharif government. They hardly question the legitimacy of having 0.003% of people demanding dissolution of national assembly, using undemocratic means.
Perhaps looking at Turkey in 1997 and in 2013 will clarify my contention. In 1997, a democratically elected government was toppled one year after being elected only by a memorandum by the Turkish military. In 2013, a democratically elected but much more centralized (and maybe more corrupt too) are not toppled. The main difference in 1997 and 2103 was the absence of military's political power in 2013.