This election would be a milestone for Pakistan's democracy. But will it go ahead?

As protesters demanding delayed elections gather in Islamabad, a warrant for the PM's arrest is issued and sceptics call foul play.

Pakistan is home to a nascent democracy. If elections, currently scheduled to occur in around four months, go ahead, it will be the first time in the country’s history that a civilian government has passed power to another through elections.

Despite this significant achievement, however, the current government – a coalition led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – is increasingly unpopular. The public is unhappy with growing and widespread corruption, power shortages, and the lack of meaningful action against terrorist violence.

It was this feeling of discontent that Mohammed Tahir ul Qadri, a Pakistani cleric who has spent the best part of the last decade in Canada, has sought to tap into. After seven years abroad, he returned to Pakistan this winter to great fanfare, calling for a million-man march to Islamabad to protest against corruption.

That march took place yesterday, and it seems that the real figure was closer to 30,000. This morning, as protesters amassed on parliament and Qadri declared that this was the start of a revolution, the scene descended into mayhem as security forces fired tear gas and live rounds to disperse the crowds.

So what does this mean for Pakistan and the prospective elections, if anything? When Qadri returned to Pakistan last month, he held a big rally at Minar-e-Pakistan, the independence monument situated in Lahore. The MQM, the powerful Karachi-based party and coalition partner, pledged their support. He appeared to have serious momentum behind him. This was followed up by an expensive advertising campaign across Pakistan’s television networks. “Save our state, not your politics,” said one, while another featured Qadri ominously warning: "If you fail to come out, if you fail to strengthen my arms, then future generations will rue this day."

There is certainly no shortage of discontent among Pakistan’s people, and Qadri’s message seemed capable of tapping into this desire for change and a cleaner system. His actual demands, however, are vague. He wants to “end corruption”, by introducing an interim government made up of “honest people” to enact these reforms. He has said that elections should be delayed indefinitely until this clean up has been done. And that is where the conspiracy theories began. Qadri has called for a role for both the military and the judiciary in this interim government, causing widespread suspicion that he is in the pay of the army. Pakistan has spent more than half of its short history under military rule, and the threat of civilian government being derailed is ever-present. Most recently, during the so-called “memo-gate” scandal in 2011, the military and judiciary appeared to be uniting against the government, before public opinion turned against them and they backed off. Reading between the lines is a Pakistani speciality – but in such a fragile democracy, it does not take much to see Qadri’s call to delay elections as suspect. If a long-standing caretaker government was headed by the army, it could simply be a coup by another name. He holds dual nationality with Canada, so cannot stand in elections himself, causing a sceptical public to ask: what is in it for him, and if nothing, on whose behalf is he acting?

Qadri’s answer is that he is acting on behalf of Pakistan’s people. But he has helped his own case. Asked directly about party funding in interviews, he has been vague, saying that it comes from people sick of corruption. Given those costly television adverts, it is no small sum. The main political parties, initially disturbed by Qadri’s potential to derail the process, have leapt on this theory, and the heat has been such that both the army and the US ambassador in Islamabad have denied any involvement in funding his campaign. In Pakistan, alleging that someone is in the pocket of the west can be the kiss of death given the long list of disastrous western interventions in the country. Certainly, he is popular in the US, since he has dedicated most of his career to running a Sufi-organisation that promotes a moderate version of Islam and stresses inter-faith harmony. The MQM, just weeks after pledging to take part in the long march, withdrew their support.

Until this episode, Qadri was not a significant figure in Pakistani national politics. He formed the Pakistan Awami Tehreek party in 1989 but couldn’t win a seat until 2002, under General Musharraf’s widely disputed elections, and withdrew from politics in 2004.

His re-entrance onto the political stage has been dramatic, but it is questionable whether it will be a game-changer. The two possibilities are that he succeeds in causing serious unrest with these protests in Islamabad and derails the electoral process, or that, like others before him who have attempted to harness popular support to present a viable alternative to the current system, he will fade out as quickly as he appeared. For months, every time a major terrorist attack or law and order problem has happened, people speculate that it is a pretext to delay elections. This is because the majority of people are keen that elections go ahead, whatever the flaws of the main parties, since it will be a major milestone for the country’s democracy. Given this, it is hard to see Qadri regaining the momentum for the constitutional changes he seeks.

UPDATE: 9.45am GMT The Pakistan Supreme Court has ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf and 15 other people in connection to a corruption case. He only took over in 2012 after the previous PM, Yousaf Raza Gilani, was ousted for contempt of court for refusing to bring corruption charges against President Asif Ali Zardari. Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry said in a separate case this week that elections will be held on time. While this may be just a coincidence, the timing, with Qadri's protesters still amassed on the streets in Islamabad, this has fuelled speculation that we are seeing a military/judicial coup unfolding.

Mohammed Tahir ul Qadri's supporters hold placards during the recent protest march in Islamabad. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser