After Qadri’s March: Has a Controversial Cleric Shaken Up Pakistani Politics?

Tahir ul Qadri has led huge protests in Islamabad since the weekend. Could this be part of a scheme to replace the civilian government?

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Tahir ul Qadri, a prominent religious scholar, talks to supporters during a sit-in protest in Islamabad, Pakistan on Jan.15, 2013.

For the past week Tahir ul Qadri, a Sufi-inspired religious leader with a weakness for extravagant rhetoric and headgear, had been leading a protest in the heart of the capital, Islamabad, calling for the government to quit. Each morning he emerged to thunder against the incompetence and avarice of the political class in live televised speeches. “The country is like a goat for them to share and eat,” he told his supporters on Wednesday, in an angry tirade that rivaled a Hugo Chavez diatribe for length.

In himself, Qadri – who returned to Pakistan just before Christmas after six years in Canada – didn’t represent a threat to the political system. Some of Qadri’s supporters liken him to a modern day Ayatollah Khomeini, returning from exile in the West to lead a popular revolt that sweeps away a corrupt and oppressive order. But the impressive numbers he has managed to gather fell considerably short of the millions he vowed to lure to the streets. As a politician, who only occasionally won a single seat in parliament, he has no political vehicle to transport his ambitions.

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Nerves, however, have been frayed at the thought of who is behind Qadri and his suspiciously well-greased campaign. The cleric’s central message – “forget politics, save the state” – has been a longstanding slogan of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. The claim that the country is too important to be left to politicians, and the people that vote them in, has been a central motif of every military dictator’s post-coup televised address. When civilians have been in power—as the current government has been for the last five years– the generals have manipulated events from behind a thin veil, including rigging elections and backing proxies.

Suspicions were heightened on Tuesday, when, just hours after Qadri arrived in Islamabad, the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, on corruption charges. For some, the timing was not coincidental. The case, relating to Ashraf’s less than glorious spell as Minister for Water and Power for the energy-starved country, had been wending its way through the sclerotic judicial system for several months. The court’s decision to issue its orders, just as Qadri and his supporters had massed in the capital, triggered fears of a broad, synchronized effort to mount a “soft coup”. The stock market tanked on Tuesday afternoon when the news came in.

Since coming to power, Ashraf has careful not to attract hostile attention from the Supreme Court. His predecessor, Yousaf Raza Gilani, was sacked by the court last year after refusing to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen corruption cases against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari. Ashraf complied with the court’s instructions, dispatching a delicately phrased missive to Geneva that insisted on Zardari’s immunity from prosecution.

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The arrest warrant and its timing suggested to critics of the court that it is determined to oust the government, pursuing one line of attack after an earlier one failed. The ruling Pakistan People’s Party could have avoided this mess by nominating a Prime Minister who wasn’t as vulnerable to criminal prosecution. But Ashraf isn’t expected to be arrested any time soon. The top anti-corruption official, Fasih Bokhari, told the Supreme Court that he intends to spend more time determining the merits of the charges.

Even if Ashraf is eventually arrested, it will not bring the government down. He will stand accused but not convicted. And even if he is convicted, the current parliament can nominate yet another candidate to replace him for a brief period. The arrest warrant, however, further weakens the government, and diminishes its chances of being returned to power after the elections. Such moves lead many to question whether the court is acting independently in the interest of the law, or making a political power play that suits the military establishment’s political agenda.

General Ashfaq Kayani, the current army chief, has made plain he’s not interested in taking over. As long as the generals can work the levers of national security, foreign and defense policy, and elements of the economy as they wish, they have no desire to snatch direct control. Pakistan’s generals have traditionally waited around a decade before one of them decides to promote himself to President. And, in any case, the military has only ever removed powerful political leaders who have grown unpopular. The weak civilian government in Pakistan today poses less of a threat.

But the generals do not relish the prospect of another civilian government taking over – as Pakistan simultaneously contends with militant Islamist violence, a long souring economy, a standoff with India, and a difficult transition in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the fear for Pakistan’s politicians is that they may be replaced with a caretaker government, handpicked by the judiciary and the military, which decides to tilt the playing field in its favor. This has been one of Qadri’s demands. The bigger fear is that such a setup might not yield to fresh elections.

The government is doing its best to stave off the prospect. It has so far indulged Qadri and his crowds, allowing them to continue protesting, hoping that the severe winter weather and any rain sweeps them off the streets. The Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, unwisely issued a veiled threat on Wednesday night. But force was not used to disperse the protestors. On Thursday night, Qadri reached an agreement to ask his supporters to leave after a day long stretch of negotiations with the government. Prime Minister Ashraf signed an agreement pledging that it would include Qadri in any discussions on the transfer of power.

Qadri was forced to compromise, given that no one else has lent their support. Before Qadri arrived in Islamabad, the Karachi-based Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a junior coalition partner, threatened to join the protests but ultimately backed down. Other parties have stayed away. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party has joined the government and the media in a concerted effort to round on Qadri, painting him as a dangerous cult leader who is holding his devotees hostage to his vanity. Former cricketer Imran Khan held aloft a moistened finger for a moment, toying with the idea of joining Qadri on the streets, but decided against it when the winds began to shift.

This was a fresh display of political maturity. In the past, politicians never let an opportunity slip to see their opponents fall, no matter who the ultimate beneficiary may be. The opposition is keen to see the current government go. But it realizes that it will only have a chance to take its place if Qadri clears the streets and lets an election go ahead.

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