TIME Hong Kong

China Rules Out Open Election in Hong Kong, Setting Stage for ‘Occupy’ Protest

Pro-democracy protesters switch on their mobile phones during a campaign to kick off the Occupy Central civil disobedience event in Hong Kong
Bobby Yip—Reuters Pro-democracy protesters switch on their mobile phones during a campaign to kick off the Occupy Central civil-disobedience event near the Central financial district in Hong Kong at Aug. 31, 2014

Demonstrators vow to paralyze Hong Kong's financial district after Beijing refused to allow unfettered nominations for the territory's top job

On democracy, there will be no compromise. That’s the message Beijing sent the city of Hong Kong on Sunday. After months of rallies calling for free and fair elections, China’s legislature effectively shut the door on full democracy, ruling out open nominations for the planned 2017 election of the city’s Chief Executive, the local government’s top leader.

Since Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, the Chief Executive has been chosen by an electoral commission dominated by establishment figures. In 2017, the Chief Executive will be elected by Hong Kong voters. But the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing has now confirmed that it will retain its gatekeeper role, making sure candidates are first vetted by a committee to gauge whether they demonstrate, among others things, sufficient “love for country.”

The announcement sets the stage for renewed conflict in the city of 7 million. On Sunday evening, local time, several thousand people gathered at government offices to protest. On an open-air stage framed by the People’s Liberation Army’s Hong Kong headquarters and lighted by the city’s skyscrapers, democracy campaigners denounced the CCP and vowed to push ahead with plans to shut down the city’s financial district. The group behind the push for civil disobedience, Occupy Central With Love and Peace, did not say when, or how, the “occupation” would start.

“We’re telling Beijing this is the start of a movement,” said Joseph Cheng, professor at City University and convener of the Alliance for True Democracy, an umbrella group advocating an open nomination process. “We don’t want to be just another Chinese city.” Beijing warned that if democratic legislators did not support its 2017 plan, the territory would revert to the current system of the choosing the Chief Executive, which has been criticized by many in Hong Kong as unrepresentative and undemocratic.

Becoming “just another Chinese city” is at the heart of the activism, and counteractivism, currently shaking Hong Kong. It has been 17 years since the territory was returned to Chinese sovereignty. Under a political conceit called “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong retained certain freedoms, but was to be beholden, on matters of security, to Beijing. Over the years, however, many Hong Kong citizens say their relative autonomy has been eroded with Beijing pressuring the city’s politicians, businesspeople, journalists and even judges to get its way.

Fears about Hong Kong’s status as a Special Administrative Region of China have brought together wide swaths of Hong Kong society to either oppose, or support, the diktats of the CCP. In late June, some 800,000 people voted on a civil-society-backed monthlong plebiscite on electoral reform that Beijing deemed illegal. Shortly afterward, on the July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, tens of thousands of people (estimates ranged from under 100,000 to more than 500,000) marched to show their support for democratic reform. The pro-Beijing camp held their own hundreds-strong counterprotest and issued a petition signed by 1.3 million supporters of their own.

The latest ruling will only deepen divisions, further widening the gap between those who welcome China’s influence (or believe there is no practical choice but to accept it), and those who see it as a threat. It may also lead to polarization within the pro-democracy camp, as the movement wrestles with how to move forward. For some, the civil disobedience spearheaded by Occupy Central is looking more attractive. “We have to stand up for ourselves,” says Bobby Chan, a 50-year-old private investor who attended Sunday’s protest. “Enough is enough.”

Other self-styled democrats are wary of plans to paralyze Central, the city’s financial district and lifeblood. They worry that blocking a vital part of the economy, and disobeying Beijing, will hurt, not help, Hong Kong’s cause. In a much discussed editorial for the South China Morning Post, titled “The Logic of Beijing’s Vision for 2017 Chief Executive Election,” lawmaker Regina Ip argues that the Chinese plan was based on international law and left room for democratic reform in the future. Progress will come with time and trust in the authorities, she reasons. In a telephone interview with TIME, Ip says Occupy Central’s “damage” to the city would depend on how many people take part and how many participants represent the “hard-core element.”

“Hard-core,” or, to use Beijing’s language, “extremist” elements, figure heavily in the CCP’s opposition to Hong Kong protest movements. In recent weeks, state-backed media have stepped up their rhetorical battle, claiming the democracy movement was a threat to the stability of the territory and the country. Citing an unnamed government source, state media also warned against foreign interference, saying central authorities will not allow anyone to use Hong Kong “as a bridgehead” to subvert, or infiltrate the mainland. “The Chinese government is convinced that there are forces in Hong Kong that want to undermine China,” says David Zweig, director of the Center on China’s Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Many activists are unbowed. “We fought for democracy for over three decades,” said Lam Cheuk-ting, chief executive of the Democratic Party, at Sunday’s demonstration in Hong Kong. “We have tolerated an undemocratic government for more than 15 years.” The people, he said, are “extremely angry.”

As heavy rain soaked Lam and his fellow protesters, some of whom were in tears, an advertisement flashed above them. From the heights of a tower bearing the name of a Chinese state-owned investment company, CITIC, beamed a fluorescent slogan, in English and Chinese; it read: “A New Chapter.” Not for Hong Kong.

— With reporting by Zoher Abdoolcarim, Charlie Campbell and David Stout / Hong Kong

TIME Iraq

Iraqi Forces Break ISIS Siege After U.S. Air Campaign

A woman and children react in a military helicopter after being evacuated by Iraqi forces from Amerli
Reuters A woman and children react in a military helicopter after being evacuated by Iraqi forces from Amerli, north of Baghdad, Aug. 29, 2014.

U.S. and allied aircraft staged humanitarian drops and targeted air strikes on Sunni militant groups

The Iraqi military announced Sunday it had broken a siege of the town of Amerli by forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, hours after the United States launched an air campaign to assist Iraqi civilians there.

Army spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said Iraqi security forces and Shiite militiamen had liberated the Shiite Turkmen town on Sunday, the AP reported, bringing to an end a months-long siege by Sunni militants.

U.S. and allied aircraft conducted humanitarian airdrops to assist thousands of Shiite Turkmen who had been surrounded by ISIS militants for weeks and had been running low on food, water, and medical supplies, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement. American aircraft also launched three airstrikes against ISIS positions near the city.

“At the request of the Government of Iraq, the United States military today airdropped humanitarian aid to the town of Amerli, home to thousands of Shia Turkmen who have been cut off from receiving food, water, and medical supplies for two months by [ISIS],” Kirby said. ‘The United States Air Force delivered this aid alongside aircraft from Australia, France and the United Kingdom who also dropped much needed supplies.”

The U.S. airstrikes, though limited, had been a decisive factor in the breaking of the siege, The Washington Post reported, allowing Iraqi forces and militia to stage a coordinated assault on ISIS-held towns in the area. About 15,000 Shiite Turkmen residents of the town of Amerli had entrenched themselves to resist the march of ISIS forces across northern Iraq.

Saturday’s airdrops were the second U.S. humanitarian effort in Iraq, following deliveries of aid to ethnic Yazidis trapped near Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq in early August. That mission ended after a week of nightly drops and strikes allowed most of the trapped Iraqi refugees to escape to safety. President Barack Obama specifically authorized the effort to assist the people of Amirli, a White House official said Saturday.

“Two U.S. C-17s and two U.S. C-130s airdropped the supplies, delivering approximately 10,500 gallons of fresh drinking water and approximately 7,000 meals ready to eat,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement. The airstrikes destroyed three ISIS Humvees, one ISIS vehicle, one ISIS checkpoint and an ISIS tank, the statement said.

Separately, American forces carried out five airstrikes Saturday near the Mosul Dam, a critical piece of infrastructure recaptured from ISIS hands by Iraqi forces earlier this month, CENTCOM announced, bringing the total number of American strikes in Iraq to 118 since Aug. 8.

Obama is weighing expanding the American campaign against ISIS in Iraq and extending it into Syria following the killing of American journalist James Foley, but the president indicated Thursday a decision was not imminent. Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling to the region this week to build an international coalition to take on extremist group.

U.S. operations in Iraq are costing more than $7.5 million per day, Kirby told reporters Friday.

TIME foreign affairs

Garry Kasparov: It’s a War, Stupid!

AP10ThingsToSee- Ukraine
Mstislav Chernov—AP A pro-Russian rebel walks in a passage at a local market damaged by shelling in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on Aug. 26, 2014

This vocabulary of cowardice emanating from Berlin and Washington is as disgraceful as the black-is-white propaganda produced by Putin’s regime, and even more dangerous

As Russian troops and armored columns advance in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian government begs for aid from the free world it hoped would receive it and protect it as one of its own. The leaders of the free world, meanwhile, are struggling to find the right terminology to free themselves from the moral responsibility to provide that protection. Putin’s bloody invasion of a sovereign European nation is an incursion, much like Crimea — remember Crimea? — was an “uncontested arrival” instead of anschluss. A civilian airliner was blown out of the sky just six weeks ago — remember MH17? — and with more than 100 victims still unidentified, the outrage has already dissipated into polite discussions about whether it should be investigated as a crime, a war crime or neither.

This vocabulary of cowardice emanating from Berlin and Washington today is as disgraceful as the black-is-white propaganda produced by Putin’s regime, and even more dangerous. Moscow’s smoke screens are hardly necessary in the face of so much willful blindness. Putin’s lies are obvious and expected. European leaders and the White House are even more eager than the Kremlin to pretend this conflict is local and so requires nothing more than vague promises from a very safe distance. As George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay on language right before starting work on his novel 1984 (surely not a coincidence): “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” The Western rhetoric of appeasement creates a self-reinforcing loop of mental and moral corruption. Speaking the truth now would mean confessing to many months of lies, just as it took years for Western leaders to finally admit Putin didn’t belong in the G-7 club of industrialized democracies.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko just met with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, but Obama’s subsequent statement showed no sign he’s willing to acknowledge reality. Generic wishes about “mobilizing the international community” were bad enough six months ago. Hearing them repeated as Ukrainian towns fall to Russian troops is a parody. (If legitimacy is what Obama is after, Russia is clearly in violation of nearly every point of the 1974 U.N. Resolution 3314, “definition of aggression.”) Perhaps Poroshenko should have matched Obama’s casual wardrobe by wearing a T-shirt that read, “It’s a War, Stupid.” As Russian tanks and artillery push back the overmatched Ukrainian forces, Obama’s repeated insistence that there is no military solution in Ukraine sounds increasingly delusional. There is no time to teach a drowning man to swim.

The U.S., Canada and even Europe have responded to Putin’s aggression, it is true, but always a few moves behind, always after the deterrent potential of each action had passed. Strong sanctions and a clear demonstration of support for Ukrainian territorial integrity (as I recommended at the time) would have had real impact when Putin moved on Crimea in February and March. A sign that there would be real consequences would have split his elites as they pondered the loss of their coveted assets in New York City and London.

Then in April and May, the supply of defensive military weaponry would have forestalled the invasion currently under way, or at least raised its price considerably — making the Russian public a factor in the Kremlin’s decisionmaking process much earlier. Those like me who called for such aid at the time were called warmongers, and policymakers again sought dialogue with Putin. And yet war has arrived regardless, as it always does in the face of weakness.

As one of the pioneers of the analogy I feel the irony in how it has quickly gone from scandal to cliché to compare Putin to Hitler, for better and for worse. Certainly Putin’s arrogance and language remind us more and more of Hitler’s, as does how well he has been rewarded for them. For this he can thank the overabundance of Chamberlains in the halls of power today — and there is no Churchill in sight.

As long as it is easy, as long as Putin moves from victory to victory without resistance, he gains more support. He took Crimea with barely a shot fired. He flooded eastern Ukraine with agents and weaponry while Europe dithered. The oligarchs who might have pressured Putin at the start of his Ukrainian adventure are now war criminals with no way back. The pressure points now are harder to reach.

The Russian military commanders, the ones in the field, are not fools. They are aware that NATO is watching and could blow them to bits in a moment. They rely on Putin’s aura of invincibility, which grows every day the West refuses to provide Ukraine with military support. Those commanders must be made to understand that they are facing an overwhelming force, that their lives are in grave danger, that they can and will be captured and prosecuted. To make this a credible threat requires immediate military aid, if not yet the “boots on the ground” everyone but Putin is so keen to avoid. If NATO nations refuse to send lethal aid to Ukraine now it will be yet another green light to Putin.

Sanctions are still an important tool, and those directly responsible for commanding this war, such as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu must be held accountable. Sanctions must also broaden. The chance to limit them only to influential individuals and companies is over. The Russian people can change Putin’s course but have little incentive to take the great risks to do so under current conditions. Only sanctions that bring the costs of Putin’s war home can have an impact now. This was always a last resort, and it wouldn’t be necessary had the West not reacted with such timidity at every step. (The other factor that is already dimming the Russian people’s fervor is the Russian military casualties the Kremlin propaganda machine is trying so hard to cover up.)

As always when it comes to stopping dictators, with every delay the price goes up. Western leaders have protested over the potential costs of action Ukraine at every turn only to be faced with the well-established historical fact that the real costs of inaction are always higher. Now the only options left are risky and difficult, and yet they must be tried. The best reason for acting to stop Putin today is brutally simple: it will only get harder tomorrow.

Kasparov is the chairman of the New York City–based Human Rights Foundation.

TIME Iraq

John Kerry Calls for Global Coalition to Fight ISIS Militants

John Kerry
Dan Himbrechts—AP FILE - In this Aug. 12, 2014 file photo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gestures as he speaks to the media during a press conference at the conclusion of the AUSMIN talks at Admiralty House in Sydney, Aug. 12, 2014.

"No decent country can support the horrors perpetrated by ISIS"

The United States needs to rally a broad alliance of nations to oppose the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in an op-ed published Friday, even as the Pentagon mulls the potential for new airstrikes against Islamic extremists in Syria.

In a column published Friday by the New York Times, Kerry wrote that a united response by a determined coalition is necessary in order to prevent “the cancer of ISIS” from spreading.

“No decent country can support the horrors perpetrated by ISIS, and no civilized country should shirk its responsibility to help stamp out this disease,” Kerry wrote. “Coalition building is hard work, but it is the best way to tackle a common enemy.”

Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel are meeting European allies at a NATO summit in Wales next week, and President Barack Obama will aim to rally support at the United Nations Security Council next month for a plan to deal with ISIS.

U.S. operations in Iraq against ISIS forces are already costing $7.5 million per day on average, the military has said, as the Pentagon ramps up airstrikes to defend local populations from the invading extremists. Air operations have shifted the calculus of the fight and aided Iraqi and Kurdish forces, Kerry wrote in the Times, but a much broader response is needed.

“Airstrikes alone won’t defeat this enemy,” Kerry wrote. “A much fuller response is demanded from the world. We need to support Iraqi forces and the moderate Syrian opposition, who are facing ISIS on the front lines. We need to disrupt and degrade ISIS’ capabilities and counter its extremist message in the media. And we need to strengthen our own defenses and cooperation in protecting our people.”

Kerry didn’t address the delicate question about putting American or other troops on the ground, but he did call for military aid, among other kinds of assistance.

“In this battle, there is a role for almost every country. Some will provide military assistance, direct and indirect. Some will provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance for the millions who have been displaced and victimized across the region,” Kerry wrote. “Others will help restore not just shattered economies but broken trust among neighbors.”

[NYT]

TIME Ukraine

U.S. Warns Against Ukraine Travel

People walk past a building damaged by shelling in Snizhne (Snezhnoye), Donetsk region
Maxim Shemetov—Reuters People walk past a building damaged by shelling in Snizhne, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Aug. 29, 2014.

Escalating conflict in the region prompted the new travel advisory for Americans

The U.S. State Department warned Americans Friday to avoid traveling to eastern Ukraine, in response to the ongoing conflict between Ukraine’s armed forces and Russia-backed separatists.

“The situation in Ukraine is unpredictable and could change quickly,” the statement said. “U.S. citizens throughout Ukraine should avoid large crowds and be prepared to remain indoors and shelter in place for extended periods of time should clashes occur in their vicinity.”

The announcement identified the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been plagued with violent outbreaks for months, as the key areas to avoid. U.S. citizens have been threatened and detained in the region, according to the release. It also advised Americans to “defer all travel to the Crimean Peninsula.”

The U.S. announcement comes as the conflict in Ukraine continues to escalate with each passing day. Up to 1,ooo Russian troops appeared to enter Ukraine on Friday, and the Ukrainian government responded by instituting a mandatory conscription.

TIME natural disaster

Volcano Erupts in Papua New Guinea, Diverting Flights

PNG-VOLCANO
Joyce Lessimanuaja—AFP/Getty Images A photo taken on August 29, 2014, shows Mount Tavurvur erupting in eastern Papua New Guinea, spewing rocks and ash into the air, forcing the evacuation of local communities and international flights to be re-routed.

A volcanic eruption in Papua New Guinea on Friday sent smoke and ash spewing high over the South Pacific island nation, leading some aircraft to alter their flight paths.

Mount Tavurvur on East New Britain Island erupted hours before dawn, a bulletin from the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory said. There have been no reports of injuries…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Military

Pentagon: Iraq Operations Costing U.S. More Than $7.5 Million A Day

Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby Holds Press Briefing
Alex Wong—Getty Images Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby listens during a press briefing at the Pentagon August 29, 2014 in Arlington, Virginia.

But the daily costs have been ramping up recently

The U.S. air and advisory campaign against the militants in Iraq is costing American taxpayers more than $7.5 million per day, the Pentagon said Friday.

The daily cost of the effort, which has included airstrikes and sending American military advisors to assist the Iraqi military on the ground, has hit $7.5 million on average, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby. The daily cost in recent weeks has been higher.

“So as you might imagine, it didn’t start out at $7.5 million per day. It’s been—as our [operational tempo] and as our activities have intensified, so too has the cost,” Kirby told reporters, offering the government’s first official assessment of the cost of the operation.

U.S. ground advisors were ordered into Iraq in June, while U.S. Central Command began airstrikes against the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), as well as humanitarian drops to assist encircled Iraqi minorities in early August. CENTCOM announced Friday that it had conducted four airstrikes in the vicinity of the critical Mosul Dam on Friday, bringing the total number of strikes since August 8 to 110.

Kirby said the Pentagon continues to believe it will be able to fund the operations through the current fiscal year ending Sept. 30 using its existing resources.

The dollar figure comes as the Pentagon is drawing up plans to expand the military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and potentially into Syria following the killing of American journalist James Foley more than a week ago. President Barack Obama said Thursday that no decision on strikes in Syria is imminent, but said he may have to ask Congress to provide additional funding for the campaign against ISIS for the next fiscal year.

TIME Web

See Every Single Device Connected to the Internet

Internet Map
John Matherly /@achillean A map showing every device connected to the Internet.

Bright spots and blackouts trace wide disparities in global connectivity

A map of every device connected to the Internet shows the wealthiest parts of the world flush with connections, while poor and sparsely populated parts of the world are blacked out — as well as a few head scratchers in between.

The map was created by John Matherly, founder of Shodan, a search engine that probes the Internet’s backend for connections to all sorts of devices from routers to refrigerators. Matherly said it took about five hours to ping every IP address on the Internet and store every positive response. It took another 12 hours to plot the responses on a heat map which glows bright orange in densely connected areas and blue and black in sparsely connected areas.

The U.S. and Western Europe are, not surprisingly, awash in connectivity. Africa and central Asia have islands of connectivity centered on urban areas. Then there are head-scratchers like Greenland, which has a single isolated dot smack in the island’s center. A Reddit user speculated it was an NOAA observatory on the summit of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

“Oh my f***ing God!! You’re the guy!!!,” wrote another Reddit commentator, ForceBlade, who detected a mysterious ping request around the time of Matherly’s project. “You touched my heart, and my server.”

TIME europe

Only Gender Quotas Can Stop the E.U. from Being a Boys Club

Newly elected President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker is congratulated on July 15, 2014, in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
Frederick Florin—AFP/Getty Images Newly elected President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker is congratulated on July 15, 2014, in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

The European Commission's president has asked that EU member states nominate female candidates. Here's why gender quotas are necessary

Gender anxiety is enveloping the top levels of the European Union. By the end of this month, each of the bloc’s 28 countries is expected to put forward their candidate to sit on the European Commission, the powerful body that drives policy-making and enforces E.U. law.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission’s new president, has instructed member states to send female candidates, saying he wants more women in the top jobs. A social media campaign – #10orMore – is also under way to boost female representation at the E.U. to a record high.

Unfortunately, governments are not playing ball: so far only five countries have nominated women. Nineteen other nations have nominated a man, with four countries still to announce their candidates.

The goal of getting more women into top decision-making posts is simply common sense given that they represent more than half of the E.U.’s 507 million citizens. Right now this is not reflected by their visibility in politics, business or the media, meaning their interests are often sidelined.

The drive to change the status quo at the top echelons of the E.U. has attracted skepticism. On the Facebook page of Neelie Kroes – one of the nine women in the outgoing Commission and a co-founder of the #10orMore campaign – critics question why gender would qualify a person for one of the 28 commissioner posts.

Such knee-jerk accusations of tokenism greet most attempts to introduce gender quotas in politics or the boardroom. But while so many barriers stand between women and senior positions – and these range from sexism in the workplace, high childcare costs and the unequal distribution of maternity and paternity leave – quotas are one of the few measures that actually have an impact.

In 1997 the British Labour party introduced all-women short lists for parliamentary candidates in some constituencies. Later that year, a record number of women were elected, and Labour still has the highest proportion of female MPs in Britain.

Britain’s Conservative party, which formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, does not support all-women short lists, and a U.N. survey of women in ministerial positions earlier this year shows Britain languishing at around the halfway point, below Morocco and Cote d’Ivoire, with women making up just 15% of the cabinet.

There are other poor performers in Europe, with Greece, Cyprus and Hungary faring even worse, reflecting the problems Juncker is having in rallying enough women for his Commission.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, are Sweden and Finland, which are in the top three of the U.N. survey with over 50% female representation in their cabinets. France and Norway are close to reaching gender parity.

What the top performers have in common are long-term and often legislated programs to improve gender equality across society. In Sweden, political parties have since the early 1990s imposed voluntary quotas for election candidates. Norway was the first to introduce quotas for women on company boards, while France has legally-binding quotas for both politics and the boardroom. “Quotas are nobody’s first choice but where they are introduced they do improve representation, they do improve visibility of women,” says Clare McNeil, a senior fellow at the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research, adding that they work best when coupled with penalties for non-compliance.

Given the pool of female talent in the E.U., having just a handful of women in the Commission would be a pitiful performance. It is crucial now that efforts to increase female representation go beyond headline-grabbing promises. Juncker and the European Parliament, which approves the Commission, must make good on threats to reject the line-up if it is too male-dominated.

Hopefully quotas will not need to be in place forever. But right now Europe is so far from being a level playing field that radical measures are needed to kick-start lasting change in society.

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson is a writer and journalist based in Brussels.

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan’s Army Steps in as Politicians Continue to Squabble

PAKISTAN-UNREST-POLITICS
Aamir Qureshi—AFP/Getty Images Pakistani supporters of Canada-based preacher Tahir-ul-Qadri shout anti-government slogans during a protest in front of the Parliament in Islamabad on Aug. 29, 2014.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif asked the powerful army chief to negotiate a resolution to the political crisis

Just last May, Pakistan was celebrating its first ever successful transition from one elected government to another, after the completion of a full five-year term in office. Now, just 15 months after the last elections, hopes of democracy strengthening have dissipated after the country’s powerful army stepped in on Thursday night to assume a political role and mediate with anti-government protestors.

For over two weeks now, the Pakistani capital Islamabad has been paralyzed by tens of thousands of protestors led by the former cricket captain-turned-opposition leader Imran Khan and the prominent cleric Tahir ul-Qadri. The two groups insisted they were separate but led closely coordinated campaigns. Khan wanted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign, while Qadri has been insisting on a complete overhaul of the country’s political system as part of a self-styled “revolution.”

The government’s efforts to negotiate with the protestors repeatedly failed. Each time, Khan said that nothing short of the prime minister’s resignation would suffice. The former World Cup-winning cricket star claims that last year’s elections were systematically rigged to deny him victory—something the government strenuously denies. The European Union’s Election Observation Mission praised the 2013 elections as a demonstration of “strong democratic commitment,” in its July 2013 report, but added that “fundamental problems” remain in the electoral process that leave it “vulnerable to malpractice.”

Khan has become an increasingly polarizing figure in recent weeks: to his hardcore of supporters he is a rare, principled politician taking on a venal and inept political class; to his opponents he is a vain and reckless politician who is prepared to risk damaging democracy in pursuit of power. At the height of the protests, he incited his supporters to stop paying taxes and electricity bills as part of a “civil disobedience” campaign, and, in a flight of rhetoric, even seemed to be challenging Prime Minister Sharif to a duel.

Late on Thursday night, after weeks of holding out, Prime Minister Sharif asked Gen. Raheel Sharif (no relation) to negotiate a resolution to the crisis. The move seemed to underscore two abiding realities in Pakistan. The often squabbling civilians are still unable to resolve their differences among themselves, and that the true center of power remains the military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi.

There is no danger of the army taking over and imposing martial law. There appears to be little appetite for that in Pakistan, despite similar rollbacks of civilian rule over the last two years in Egypt and Thailand. But now the civilian government’s authority has been badly, if not fatally, weakened. Even if Prime Minister Sharif survives the current crisis, with his parliamentary majority intact, he will be hamstrung in his ability to implement many of his proposed reforms.

The Sharif government has scarcely helped itself, though. Prime Minister Sharif’s name was this week included among the accused in a police report looking into the killings of 14 protestors loyal to cleric Qadri in June, in the eastern city of Lahore. On that occasion, the notoriously heavy-handed Punjab police lived up to its reputation by assailing the crowds with tear gas and later opening fire. The prime minister isn’t likely to be tried for the incident, but his younger brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, is facing intense pressure to step down now.

Although Prime Minister Sharif formally asked the army chief to step in, it is widely suggested that he did so reluctantly. The Punjabi industrialist-turned-leader of the conservative Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has a decades-old difficult relationship with Pakistan’s generals. Once a protégé of the former dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Sharif turned against his mentors and has repeatedly clashed with every army chief during his two terms as prime minister in the 1990s. The last of those confrontations, in 1999, saw him overthrown in a military coup led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Prime Minister Sharif’s current difficulties with the army appear to stretch back to his decision, soon after assuming office last year, to place Musharraf on trial for imposing a state of emergency in November 2007. His government’s other initiatives, including attempts at warmer ties with neighbors New Delhi and Kabul through an independent foreign policy, are believed to have chafed military leaders. Now, the army will likely play a more decisive role when it comes to Pakistan’s foreign and defense policies, relegating the civilians to the often messy and unpopular business of day-to-day governance.

Soon after it was announced that the army chief would step into mediate late on Thursday night, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the defense minister and one of Prime Minister Sharif’s closest aides tried to gloss over the occasion by claiming that the army was merely playing “a constitutional role”. But another member of the Sharif cabinet was plainly dispirited by the sight of thousands on the street being able to imperil a national electoral mandate. A picture is worth a thousand words, tweeted Khurram Dastgir-Khan, the commerce minister, with an attached image. It was the movie poster for George Lucas’ Star Wars film, “The Empire Strikes Back.”

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