Ready for sacrifice
Pakistan’s civilian leaders fight back after a battering by a populist cleric, courts and, behind it all, the army
JUST before setting off for their “long march” to Islamabad, on January 13th, supporters of Tahir ul Qadri, a populist cleric who has burst onto Pakistan’s political scene, cut the throat of a bull that lay trussed in the back of a lorry. A quartet of bleating goats was similarly dispatched. The idea, said a man outside Mr Qadri’s house in Lahore, was to bring good fortune to his movement.
For Mr Qadri, those sacrifices seemed at first to pay off handsomely. His claims to have drawn millions to the streets were way off the mark: perhaps 50,000 flag-wavers actually made it to Islamabad, in colourful buses, lorries and cars. But even that was a heady achievement. Big protests are usually banned in Pakistan’s tightly controlled capital—the last one this size was in the 1980s. This one was peaceful, well run and broadcast non-stop on television, contributing to a sense that the 61-year-old was shaking up national politics.
This is something of a puzzle. A moderate Sufi cleric who rejects the label of “mullah”, Mr Qadri has lived in Canada since 2006, from where he leads an impressive educational and religious body with tens of thousands of members. But he is also a failed ex-politician who served briefly as an MP loyal to a previous military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, and whose always tiny party is now defunct. Until a rally attended by over 100,000 supporters on December 23rd in Lahore, nobody imagined that the bespectacled, bearded and rather fiery preacher could be a political figure of any significance.
All the more curious, this week he showed a near-mystical ability to make things happen. On January 15th he addressed his supporters in Islamabad from what looked like an elevated Portaloo mounted with bulletproof windows. He called for “revolution”, harangued politicians—he likes to say that “our lawmakers are lawbreakers”—and wished away the venal civilian leaders of Pakistan’s government. By contrast, he lauded the army as “sincere” and praised the judiciary.
A taste for revolution
His backers loved it. Mohammad Ramzan, a security guard, travelled 35 hours by bus to be at the protest. He brought with him a shroud, which he pulled out from a plastic bag, in case he was required to sacrifice his life. “We have come here for revolution. A poor persons’ revolution. This corrupt system must end. I am willing to give my life for this,” Mr Ramzan insisted.
Then, as the cleric paused for breath, news broke that the Supreme Court had ordered the arrest of the prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, and 15 others, over a long-running bribery scandal to do with commissioning power stations. Some in the crowd fell to kiss the earth, some bent in prayer, others were in tears at such deliverance. Though Mr Qadri says otherwise, the timing of the court order appeared to many to be more than a coincidence.
Matters then moved with bewildering speed. Ruling and opposition politicians got together to accuse Mr Qadri of trying to undermine democracy and the constitution. Some saw signs of a soft coup, known as the “Bangladesh option” after a two-year suspension of democracy in that country, in 2007, led by the army and blessed by judges. Another populist figure, Imran Khan, picked his way with care. He called on President Asif Ali Zardari to quit, but would have no part in Mr Qadri’s movement, now stealing his own thunder.
What exactly is going on? Mr Qadri taps into deep anguish among Pakistanis who despair at the rotten state of their country and their cynically awful leaders. The national mood is especially grim, too, after last week’s big bombings in Quetta (see article). Even so, it is unlikely that the cleric could stir such a response alone.
“Obviously he is propped up by someone, and those powers are temporal, not spiritual,” says Ahmed Rashid, an observer of politics from Lahore. He means the army, which would have much to gain if it could weaken and divide civilian politicians in the coming months, even if it dares not launch an outright coup.
The timing of it all is crucial. After five years the ruling coalition, led by Mr Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party, is about to set a date for a general election, probably for the first week of May. If all goes well, a new civilian coalition, perhaps led by the main opposition figure, Nawaz Sharif, of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), would then take office. That transition would be historic: never in Pakistan’s violent and unstable history has an elected leader served a full term and passed power to another.
Mr Qadri is disgusted by such a prospect, saying an election that allows back feudal bosses, tax-dodgers, thieves and frauds of the main parties will do Pakistan no good. Similarly the army would hate civilian figures to grow more emboldened. Partly this is because many in uniform share Mr Qadri’s dim view of politicians.
As important, they fret that stronger civilians, especially Mr Sharif, may dare challenge the army’s privileged position in Pakistan. The army retains control over foreign policy and domestic security. It grabs a large share of public spending, and its senior ranks get housing, valuable land, and flourish in business with suspicious ease. A slightly more critical press, and active courts, are just beginning to push for corruption charges against ex-generals.
In addition another important transition is due to happen this year. The chief of the armed forces, General Ashfaq Kayani, sees his extended term in office expire in November. His getting, unusually, an extra three years in the job upset some army colleagues. Meanwhile, critics say his spell in charge has been a failure: security in the country is deteriorating, and the army was humiliated when the Americans discovered and killed Osama bin Laden hiding in a sleepy military town in 2011. Sceptics also want light shed on how two of General Kayani’s brothers won so many public construction contracts in recent years.
All that could leave General Kayani feeling vulnerable if civilian politicians, emboldened after an election, grow more assertive. The next prime minister will appoint the military chief’s successor, and could start demanding greater control over defence spending and begin a debate on the role of the army. The general may have a particularly strong foreboding at the idea that Mr Sharif, embittered by previous clashes with the army, could take charge.
By one reckoning the army had hoped that Imran Khan’s sudden rise would divide political parties, especially hurting Mr Sharif’s party in his home province of Punjab. Yet Mr Khan has denied being the army’s man, and in any case it is unclear how well he will fare at the polls. That leads many to suspect that the army then pushed Mr Qadri forward.
Yet now, despite the bull and the goats, Mr Qadri’s impact may turn out to be limited. The main political parties and the Supreme Court appear to agree that elections must not be delayed. Nor will the Election Commission be reformed, or tougher restrictions imposed on candidates for office. As The Economist went to press, Mr Qadri remained with his supporters in Islamabad, the confrontation unresolved. But his ability to dictate events seemed to be fading.
Still, the army might yet wish to weaken the hand of civilian politicians before the polls. For example, could a rumbling confrontation between Pakistani soldiers and Indian ones, over the line of control in disputed Kashmir, be understood in that context? It is tempting to see a conspiracy in the sudden spate of unusual violence—three Pakistani soldiers and two Indians have been killed in barely more than a week. Some wonder whether it is designed to stir domestic backing for Pakistan’s armed forces.
No evidence of that has emerged so far. India’s fury is the greater, stirred up by an angry press and a report that one of its soldiers was beheaded and the body of another mutilated. By contrast, Pakistan’s army, press and television—even its usually thunderous commentators—have been remarkably subdued over the deaths in Kashmir. After both sides’ armies agreed to “de-escalate” tensions, on January 16th Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, called for talks to defuse them.