The Pakistan march: What next?
The winds of change are stirring in Islamabad. On Monday 14 January, tens of thousands of people joined Dr Tahirul Qadri (pictured), a Pakistani-Canadian Sufi scholar, in Lahore on a ‘million man’ march towards Islamabad.
Late last year, Qadri seemingly appeared out of nowhere, returning to Pakistan and demanding regime change after spending six years in Canada. Qadri resigned his seat in the National Assembly in 2004 and his political party does not occupy a single seat in parliament. Qadri’s cause? Democracy, an end to corruption and justice for all.
It is not clear what prompted his return to Pakistan, nor is it clear what (or who) is funding his long march. The Interior Minister alleges Qadri and his march are an ‘international conspiracy to destabilise Pakistan‘, while others argue that Pakistan’s army is backing Qadri.
Islamabad is under siege. It is difficult to get in and out of the city. Most Western embassies have been closed all week as a security precaution. I have stockpiled food and drinking water just in case. From my house, I can hear protesters chanting, helicopters hovering, and occasional automatic weapon fire.
It is difficult to see a resolution to the protest. Qadri called for the dissolution of national and provincial assemblies by 15 January. This deadline has not been met. Qadri and his band of followers have vowed to stay in Islamabad until he achieves his ‘objectives’: a seven-point plan to bring change to Pakistan, which includes the dissolution of national and provincial parliaments.
He wants to achieve ‘peace at home and abroad’, arguing the political leadership in Pakistan is so incompetent that it has been unable to form a national counter-terrorism policy. Qadri has demanded the installation of a caretaker government led by technocrats or the appointment of a military government.
In two months, the PPP-led coalition government, headed by Benazir Bhutto’s widow, Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari, will have served out its full term. If elections proceed as planned later this year, it will be the first time in Pakistan’s history that one democratically elected government has been replaced by another.
On 15 January, the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf on corruption charges linked to his time as Minister for Water and Power. The court order came as Dr Qadri was addressing tens of thousands of people at his rally. The timing led many analysts to believe that the court order was linked to Qadri’s agenda and was ‘part of a bigger plan to dislodge the government and impose a government of technocrats or the installation of martial law by the “establishment”‘. Asma Jehangir, a prominent human rights lawyer called the move ‘not a coincidence, but a conspiracy.’ The Karachi Stock Exchange lost 500 points in ten minutes following the announcement, only the fourth time in history that the market fell by more than 500 points.
Qadri’s call for the dissolution of parliaments, while bringing Pakistan’s capital to a standstill, hardly smacks of democracy, the very virtue he is trying to espouse as ‘democracy’s saviour’. It is difficult to know how long the protest/rally will last, but it is unlikely to have ‘revolutionary’ implications and it is unlikely an Arab Spring-style revolution will unfold in Pakistan.
Why? Pakistan is a very heterogeneous society, with many different ethnic groups which have many different ideas about what Pakistan should be and what aspirations it should have. Simply put, it is unlikely people will find enough issues in common to coalesce around.
Secondly, there are too many political parties and interest groups in Pakistan for a strong candidate to emerge with a platform for change. As of March 2012, there were 182 registered political parties in Pakistan, or one party for every million people. Under the election laws, it is mandatory for every party to hold intra-party elections before it is allocated an election symbol. Symbolism is an important aspect of Pakistani politics given only 55% of the population is literate, but meaningful symbols to rally around are in short supply; some of the newer parties have been allocated party symbols like flowerpots, fans and televisions.
The people of Pakistan have much to protest over. In addition to Qadri’s demands for better democracy and end to corruption, this winter has seen living conditions decline rapidly throughout Pakistan. Gas stations have run out of petrol and CNG on several occasions, blackouts still occur regularly and patchy gas supply has forced people to cook and heat with firewood. For those who live in Pakistan’s mountainous areas, where snowstorms have completely cut off road access to some villages, the failure of Pakistan’s government to provide basic services bites most deeply.
And so begins the wait to see if the protesters or the Government blinks first. It will be important for Pakistan’s nascent democracy for the Government to be allowed to serve out its full term and for people to express their political aspirations via free and fair elections due later this spring. If not, Qadri’s (and Pakistan’s) aspirations for democracy and change will undoubtedly fail and Pakistan will be much worse off.