January 18, 2013

Democracy fights back in Pakistan

The political class in Pakistan overcomes the challenge posed by Tahir-ul-Qadri and his backers.

This week, Pakistan was on the verge of losing its hard-won, albeit weak, democracy. A series of events unfolded from January 15-17 at such a hectic pace that it was hard to keep up. “What next?” was a question being asked by all and sundry. Everyone was on the edge. Finally, the democrats in Pakistan are celebrating. They have won, at least for the time being. What the future has in store for them is anybody’s guess but at the moment it looks like their efforts have finally paid off. Now the powerful military establishment will have to go back to the drawing board to come up with another plan to derail democracy. The independent but highly biased judiciary has a few tricks up its sleeve but whether or not it can help the military establishment weaken democracy remains to be seen.


Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri, a dual national cleric, is the founding leader of Minhaj-ul-Quran International (MQI) and chairman of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT). Despite his brief stint in Pakistani politics, he is more famous as a religious leader than as a political leader. From General Zia-ul-Haq to General Pervez Musharraf, Dr Qadri has had good relations with the military establishment. When Qadri made a dramatic entry back in Pakistan last month, many analysts who had been hinting at the military establishment’s plan of installing a Bangladesh Model in the country were able to put two and two together. Dr Qadri challenged the political system just months before the general elections while addressing a mammoth rally in Lahore on December 23; some say it was even larger than Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan’s grand rally in October 2011. Despite a huge gathering in Lahore, Qadri’s long march in Islamabad could attract only thousands of people instead of the four million he had claimed would gather in the capital. Sitting on a special chair inside a bullet-proof container, Qadri gave one ultimatum after another to the government for the next few days. Contrary to the constitutional provisions, Qadri wanted the military and the judiciary to be on board in the formation of a caretaker setup. On January 15, the Supreme Court of Pakistan issued orders for the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf in the rental power corruption case. The timing of this decision looked suspect as it happened merely hours after Qadri and his followers had stormed the capital. “Mubarak ho, Mubarak ho,” Qadri shouted out to his followers after he heard about the court’s orders. It looked as if a lot of conspiracy theories were about to become a reality.

Fortunately, the political class saw what was cooking and decided to act in the interest of Pakistan’s democratic future. The next day, opposition leaders of various political parties had a meeting with Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) chief Mian Nawaz Sharif in Lahore. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and its coalition partners also stood together to save the system. Two press conferences changed the entire mood. The first one by Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Qamar Zaman Kaira clearly demonstrated the government’s mood: relaxed and confident. Apart from mocking Dr Qadri’s unconstitutional demands, Mr Kaira made it quite clear that elections would be held on time and nobody would be allowed to disrupt the system. The second press conference was held by Mian Nawaz Sharif alongside other opposition leaders (with the exception of an important player, Imran Khan). Mian sahib was vocal about his resolve to fight all undemocratic forces. It was an unofficial but highly important vote of confidence in the democratic system. The message was clear: the political class would not allow elections to be delayed. It must be noted that PTI chief Imran Khan had been contemplating whether or not to join Qadri’s long march. He kept saying he supported many of Qadri’s demands but it seems that better sense finally prevailed and he decided not to be part of Qadri’s charade. Kaira and Sharif’s press conferences took the steam out of Qadri’s hot air balloon. Now all he needed was a face-saving exit.

On January 17, Qadri signed an agreement with the government, ending his long march. The irony of signing an agreement with the same prime minister who he longed to see behind bars is not lost on anyone. Qadri and his backers (the military-judiciary nexus) were craftily outmanoeuvred by the political class. This is nothing short of a victory and a huge morale booster for Pakistan’s nascent democracy. Given our military’s track record, had it been in a position to mount a direct coup, it would have done so. Mercifully, those days are over. This is not say that the military establishment will not try to destabilise the democratic system. Elections are all set to be held in May this year. It cannot be said with certainty who will come to power but the military fears a comeback of Mian Nawaz Sharif in the Prime Minister’s House after the next general elections. Mian sahib has been unequivocally vocal about civil-military imbalance in the country. Not only does he want the military to be subservient to the civilians, but he is also committed to long-lasting peace with India. These two demands make the Pakistani military establishment nervous.

Let me end by sharing a personal anecdote that might summarise the emotional upheaval caused by the events during the last few days for the supporters of democracy. On January 15, I went to a friend’s place in the evening. The moment we saw each other, we hugged each other tightly and started to cry. We felt helpless and demoralised by the day’s events. Following Kaira and Nawaz Sharif’s press conferences on January 16, I got a call from the same friend. “Mehmal, WE WON…democracy WON,” she screamed in joy on the phone. “I am coming over. Let’s celebrate,” I shouted back. We danced and we hooted when we met. On January 17, we sat together in deep contentment, watching Qadri beat a hasty ‘face-saving’ retreat. It was one of the most satisfying moments of our lives.

Photo: Omer Wazir

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