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.