Pakistan: A Tipping Point?
A revolution averted: as we prepared to fly to Pakistan, we realized that the country was being held hostage by a charismatic Canada-based cleric, Dr. Tahirul Qadri, chief of Tehreek-e-Minhajul Quran. He held a march with 40-50,000 of his supporters in Islamabad with the singular objective of overthrowing the current government — ostensibly to be replaced by a clean and uncorrupt government — which could potentially disrupt democracy in the country.
Mr. Qadri aimed to dislodge President Asif Zardari’s government — renowned for its corruptness — and to replace it with a new administration led by technocrats. For some Pakistanis, Dr. Qadri’s march in Islamabad conjured up fears of a military takeover once again while many questions about Mr. Qadri, his supporters and funders are left unanswered. The common wisdom is that Pakistani expats in Canada corroborated with him, but the reason for this is not clear. Interestingly, Mr. Qadri is a preacher — but decisively not a fundamentalist. In fact, he is much like the aging activist Anna Hazare in India, who last year maintained a long-standing fight against corruption and for clean government through months of protests and a sustained fast, despite his ripe age.
Mr. Qadri’s four-day campaign, which he took to the streets, enabled him to score modest gains — a date set for the next election and a screening criteria for candidates — to stem corruption. Credit for the resolution goes to the Pakistani leaders who salvaged the precarious situation skillfully. While I am not a fan of Zardari’s, kudos to him and his team for creating “a cooling down” period which enabled negotiators on both sides to save face. Mr. Qadri stepping back was literally and metaphorically helped by unseasonal rains which provided him with an opportunity to call off the protest, rescuing his street supporters from winter weather exacerbated by the lack of water, food and sanitary facilities.
Mr. Qadri’s rally focused on key issues for Pakistanis at a historic moment as the first civilian-led government (not a military dictatorship) will now yield to another democratic government. This is a giant step forward for Pakistan. Adnan Rehmat, in his article, “Old Tricks, New Pakistan,” captures the political mood and spirit in the country. He writes, “the contours of a new Pakistan are emerging,” with decidedly different characteristics. This includes a greater demand for democracy, inclusivity, better governance, support for electoral politics and a guarantee of fundamental rights by the state with pressure for party reforms. He highlights the new political parties like Imran Khan’s and Tehreek-e-Minhajul Quran (Mr. Qadri’s Party), stepping up to assert a new agenda focused on governance, basic services and a solid bill of rights for citizens.
Bottom line: a violent disruption of the election process was averted — peacefully. While the bazaars in Karachi were shut down for a day to protest yet another tragic assassination there, we zipped through a traffic-free ride into the city — thanks to hourly updates on safety issues for tourists which our friends at Hum TV in Karachi kindly provided.
There is no question that this was a big step for Pakistan in the right direction: These negotiations reflected a sign of maturity for Pakistan’s president and his team. There is more here that bodes well: People we spoke with took pride in how the country’s leadership handled these delicate negotiations, salvaging a potentially fractious situation. The intelligencia, media and American diplomats were almost buoyant, saying “this could be a turning point for Pakistan.” They were optimistic about the outcome and the mature handling of a crisis by politicians who in the past have often been politically clumsy. This time around, the president’s men handled the challenging situation brilliantly — earning a well deserved bravo for Pakistan !
Pakistanis are a lovely people and equally well known for their conspiracy theories. On the other side of the divide, many Pakistanis saw the troubling influence of their powerful armed forces behind him. Some say that Nawaz Sharif, leader of the opposition party, supported President Zardari because he believed that Mr. Qadri was promoting a “conspiracy against democracy,” paving the way for an army coup. Interestingly, a professional Pakistani woman in the seat next to me on the flight to Islamabad said she had heard that this whole situation was rigged by the president himself to blow off the possibility of a military takeover! This rumor was also corroborated by our politically connected hosts in Lahore.
While Pakistan is often dismissed as a “failed state,” Mr. Qadri clearly tapped into a deep and smoldering discontent on the streets. Pakistan’s politicians are often corrupt and contemptuous of their constituents. Mr. Qadri capitalized on the political grievances and combined them with other deep seated issues, including terrorism, unemployment and energy shortages. “Clean” politics is a dream in Pakistan attributed to “the boiling rage experienced by the common man.” Imran Khan, cricketer-turned-politician, running on a platform denouncing corruption while embracing clean politics, is a star attraction, drawing big crowds to his rallies.
The new mantra for the progress and stability of countries in South Asia is good governance, clean politics and inclusivity with a special focus on economically empowering women — for the well-being of our countries on multiple levels.
The march from Lahore to Islamabad was a historic first in many ways: it was positive, peaceful and focused on intrinsic issues of clean governance and national interests. Further and importantly, the march included educated women and girls, men and boys who are key stakeholders. A historic step for Pakistan — reinvigorating democracy and a vote for hope for the men and women on the street.