By Najam Sethi
December 28, 2012
Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri, a moderate cleric with a large following, has droned into Pakistan from Canada with a big bang and is threatening to unleash a firestorm in Islamabad shortly. The MQM, a fair weather friend, is backing the good doctor to the hilt. What’s going on? Dr Qadri is a dual Pak- Canadian national. By law he cannot contest the Pakistan elections. He says he hasn’t renounced his Canadian nationality because he hasn’t yet decided to contest the general elections. Yet he has made bold to gather hundreds of thousands of his Minhajul Koran followers in Lahore to demand impossible electoral reforms in the next fifteen days, failing which he intends to congregate a million- strong gathering outside parliament and protest.
Dr Qadri argues that if Benazir Bhutto could threaten a long march in 1992- 3 and provoke the military to oust Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and if Nawaz Sharif could use the same tactics in 2009 to get the military to help restore the judges, why shouldn’t he follow in their footsteps for the cause of establishing a truly independent and neutral caretaker government with input from the military and judiciary? It doesn’t bother him that most caretaker governments to date have been cobbled by the military — 1988 and 1990 by COAS General Aslam Beg, 1993 by COAS General Waheed Kakar and 1999 by COAS General Pervez Musharraf — and not one could measure up to the neutrality criteria set by Dr Qadri.
It is not clear how he will ensure compliance this time round. For all these reasons, conspiracy theories are afoot about his real agenda to lay the popular groundwork for another military intervention of some sort or the other.
Dr Qadri is primarily responsible for creating this perception.
In pursuit of his electoral reform agenda, he has quoted provisions of the constitution that enable a delay in elections if necessary and impossible criteria for qualification to contest them. By such reckoning, most candidates nominated by the two mainstream parties are not good enough Muslims to qualify. He has also cited the establishment of a caretaker government of technocrats in democratic Italy for a significant period of time as one way forward. But he has neglected to mention one critical fact of divergence: the technocratic Mario Monti government in Italy that lasted 13 months and quit last week was ushered in at the behest of a sitting parliament with the approval of all the parties to carry out hard tax and not electoral reforms before elections, whereas Dr Qadri’s formula seeks such a caretaker government without parliament’s and without the approval of the mainstream parties. The bigger irony is that Dr Qadri wants to stop certain types of people from entering parliament, yet he himself is not yet eligible to contest for public office.
Questions are also being asked about the source of hundreds of millions of rupees Dr Qadri has earmarked for his jalsa and long march. He claims that his motivated supporters in Pakistan and abroad have donated for the cause.
Cynical Pakistanis are inclined to disbelieve him even though they admit to his large following.
Naturally, too, the two mainstream parties that are being targeted by him are up in arms.
They insist he is a front man for the military establishment that is seeking excuses to postpone the elections and devise ways and means to thwart the PPP or the PMLN from returning to power.
Dr Qadri has slightly wilted from his original posturing because of such hard questions.
He is now insisting that he doesn’t want a postponement of elections on any pretext or that he is seeking a “direct” military intervention.
But he is sticking to his impossible demands for electoral rightsizing and neutral and upright caretaker governments in the next two weeks and is readying his popular forces for the assault on Islamabad.
The PPP government has announced elections in the first week of May. It is on track for negotiating caretaker arrangements with the PMLN according to the 20th constitutional amendment passed recently.
But Dr Qadri has thrown a spanner in the works by rejecting their constitutional right to determine the issue. The stage is therefore all set for a populist long march to change the constitutional way for transition by show of force.
The PPP can partly pre- empt the problem by quickly announcing firm dates for the dissolution of the government and parliaments and for holding of elections.
It can also immediately announce a process for the establishment of formal, transparent, neutral and credible machinery for cobbling the caretaker governments to everyone’s satisfaction.
But this may not be sufficient to thwart the aims and objectives of those who seek a longer- term solution to the corruption and inefficiency of both mainstream parties and want to keep them from hogging power yet again.
If Dr Qadri’s long march materialises, the chances are that a crisis will be precipitated to draw the military into the fray. The government’s reaction could be one cause. Terrorist attacks on the procession could draw blood and create a law and order problem.
Imran Khan and other oppositionists including pro- military religious groups and organisations could join hands with Dr Qadri to exploit the occasion to destabilise the government and engineer its ouster. The interventionist judiciary might throw its weight behind such a move.
Should this scenario come to pass, the stage would be set up for a postponement of elections and installation of a technocratic government for both Reform and Accountability for a couple of years a la Bangladesh rather than Italy. Whether this new experiment will lead to stability or anarchy remains a moot issue.
Najam Sethi is the editor of The Friday Times.
Source: The Friday Times