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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.