Pakistan’s Wave of Crises: Ahead of Elections, Islamabad Struggles to Put Out the Fires

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Faisal Mahmood / REUTERS

A supporter of scholar Tahirul Qadri chants slogans during protests in Islamabad on Jan. 16, 2013

Leaders in Pakistan were thrown into crisis-management mode this week as tensions over border skirmishes with India spiked and observers worried aloud whether large protests in the capital were setting the stage for a soft coup ahead of elections. On Thursday, tens of thousands of protesters camped for the fourth day in front of Parliament in Islamabad, gathered under tarps and blankets in cold temperatures and heavy rain to listen to religious scholar Tahirul Qadri address the crowd. The Canadian-Pakistani antigraft crusader, who issued a fatwa against terrorism in 2010, led a march from Lahore to the capital earlier in the week. Calling the country’s leaders too corrupt to continue to rule, Qadri called for, among other things, the government to immediately dissolve its legislative bodies and set up a caretaker administration ahead of national polls scheduled for May. “This corrupt ruling mafia don’t want to listen to the poor people of Pakistan,” he tweeted out to some 22,000 followers on Thursday.

The sit-in, beset by increasingly unsanitary conditions and reports of illness, was expected to disband by Thursday night as a government delegation reportedly entered talks with Qadri by late afternoon. According to several journalists’ tweets, power went out during the talks in the metal container where Qadri has been based for the week. With or without electricity, what will come out of the conversation is unclear, as is what — or who — prompted Qadri to start this sudden people’s movement, given that the cleric lived in Canada for the past several years. The fact that he emerged in 1999 to publicly back the coup by former military chief Pervez Musharraf has some wondering whether he has shown up now with the military’s backing to help orchestrate a similar ouster.

Both Qadri and the military have denied such speculations, and some analysts say sudden talk of a so-called soft coup took shape a little too quickly. “The military is bogged down in counterterrorism,” says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a security expert based in Lahore. “If they do anything, they will do it from the sidelines.”

Still, he says protests have served the military’s interests by putting the government of President Asif Ali Zardari on the back foot. Rizvi says Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry also sensed an opportunity to strike, ordering the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and other officials earlier this week on charges of corruption. Ashraf has denied any wrongdoing, and on Thursday the head of the government’s anticorruption agency said it would not act now on the arrest, citing rushed paperwork.

It’s too soon to tell what will come out of the talks being held tonight in Islamabad. Rizvi says the results will likely be a “compromise,” designed in part to help Qadri save face after he didn’t get the political backing he may have expected from opposition parties. The government was due to set up a caretaker government ahead of elections anyway, as per Pakistani law, and the government may simply urge the cleric to accept that the process he was calling for will take place later.

Negotiating that deal is not the only crisis that Pakistan’s government has been fielding this week. The nation’s commitment to protecting religious and tribal minorities has been called into question in large protests in the southwestern city of Quetta and in the northwestern city of Peshawar, where demonstrators amassed after security forces allegedly killed 18 members of the Bara tribe.

Relations with India have been strained after a series of skirmishes at the Line of Control that separates Pakistan and India-controlled Kashmir sent both nations’ media into a frenzy and led leaders to exchange some chilly words. Though the 2003 cease-fire has been periodically violated in the past decade, the reported deaths of five soldiers this month threatened to unravel the fragile peace there. On Wednesday, military leaders met and agreed to exercise mutual restraint, and no firing was reported at the border on Wednesday night.

In New Delhi, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid was reportedly considering bilateral talks after Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar proposed to meet. “Instead of issuing belligerent statements by the military and political leaders from across the border and ratcheting up tension, it is advisable for the two countries to discuss all concerns related to Line of Control (LOC) with a view to reinforcing respect for the cease-fire, may be at the level of the Foreign Ministers to sort out things,” she said in a statement on Wednesday. “Continued tension along the LOC is not in the interest of peace and stability in the region.”