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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.