Politics of protest




It seems there is a global rise in street protests from causes ranging from fare increase for students to corruption by status quo politicians. No country is immune from these protests whether it is streets of Sao Palo, Istanbul, Hong Kong and Islamabad just to name few. The major reason for this growing reliance on street protest is the growing trust deficit between traditional politicians and people. The emergence of social media has provided a free communication platform to invite large number of people and inspire them to come to the streets. Most of these online appeals use propaganda techniques based on fictional information rather than facts. But what is the outcome of most of these protests?

Let us look at some major protests and their outcome. Protests in Egypt resulted in overthrow of Hosni Mubarak but also paved way for emergence of another autocrat in the form of Al-Sisi. The net result was a failure with thousands of people losing their lives. In Libya and Syria, the protests turned violent and provided opportunity for foreign powers to intervene resulting in the complete breakdown of the state. In Thailand, it resulted in the emergence of a military junta and overthrow of civilian rule. In Hong Kong, China put down the protests using both soft and hard power of the state without offering any compromise deal to the protesters. In India, the protesting Patel farmers could not gain any compromise deal from the government. In Brazil, the government initiated a crackdown on the protesters and disbanded them. In USA, both Tea Party and Occupy Movements have lost their political appeal and their candidates have not made much different after a small impact on first Congressional elections. In UK, government crackdown on the student protesters resulted in over 800 convictions by judges for engaging in it. In Ukraine, the protesters did not gain anything but in the process initiated a civil war that is still going on. It provided an opportunity for Russia to reclaim Crimea and support autonomy movements in Eastern Ukraine. So, by and large, protests for political gains have not been a very successful model.

Traditionally civic organisations with narrow focus on a special interest have been more successful in pressurising governments to achieve their objectives. Protests by workers union have in most cases resulted in a labour deal that was a compromise between industrialists and workers. From this perspective protests by PIA workers can be acceptable but may not succeed because of bad brand image of it among people. Sympathy of larger community is important for a civic protest movement to succeed which PIA workers do not have. Political parties on the other hand should use lobbying with special interest, trade associations and parliament floor to oppose wrong policies of the government. When a political party engages in street protest, it has to be done sparingly rather than at every turn of the corner.

PTI has an imaging issue when it comes to dharna and protests. In general people have this perception that PTI does not have enough depth and maturity to understand policy. It is assumed that to hide this weakness they engage in protests and their motives are political opportunism rather than interest of the people. A better approach for PTI would be to prepare detailed policy position about fiscal, labor and privatisation policies. Then they should present these policies on parliament floor as well as reach out to trade associations to lobby with them for support. Once these initial efforts fail to pressurise government, then it will be better to go on the street and chances of genuine people support will be much higher. Another aspect PTI has to consider is that the people most affected by a protest and dharna are daily wage workers. A prolonged protest will annoy this poorer segment of the society which has traditionally not supported PTI in a ballot box. Lastly, the party dissolved all its organisation and is in the middle of an intra-party elections which means it does not have the resources to pull this nationwide.

PTI should also learn from the example of MQM which relied heavily on strikes for their political agenda. Eventually they had to abandon that strategy because they started losing support of people. Another example for PTI to consider is Jamat-e-Islami which also engaged in street protests to demand imposition of Sharia in the country. That effort also failed miserably and eventually JI took a decision that they will strive for transformation through constitutional and political means.

The lesson from last two dharnas of PAT in 2013 and PTI/PAT in 2015 is that people of Pakistan are not interested in politics of agitation anymore. People want politicians to be more mature and cognizant of the needs of the nation and put their act together to deliver good governance and improve their lives. Success of PML-N in Punjab is not just because they engaged in rigging but because they have made extensive efforts to improve quality of life there. But they have failed to replicate same model in other provinces despite control of central government since 2013. This widening gap between Punjab and other provinces can cause upheaval and social unrest. This should be of serious concern and must be addressed on urgent basis.

Politics has to reform in Pakistan by improving institutional capacity of political parties and attracting top talent. Protests have not delivered anything to political parties across the world and heavy reliance on it will cause a net loss to the nation.


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