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
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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.