The stolen march
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Tahirul Qadri, a populist preacher turned political reformer, arrived in Islamabad with thousands of followers in tow, determined to bring down the federal and provincial governments and to put off elections until the political class is cleansed of corruption and malfeasance. Unusual as the Qadri spectacle was, it was not entirely unexpected. In parroting the army-led security establishment's longstanding aversion to civilian politicians, Qadri is simply the latest in a long string of thinly veiled threats to the democratic order.
What's changed, though, is the efficacy of the attacks: they don't quite seem to go according to plan, as they once did. Qadri left Islamabad claiming victory, but in reality he achieved little. Parliament remains intact, as does the Election Commission of Pakistan, the dissolution of both being central to his demands. And what he did achieve, he achieved through public negotiation with the very representatives he had denounced as charlatans and fraudsters.
Where Qadri has succeeded is in inserting some uncertainty in the election schedule and the caretaker set-up — Pakistan's electoral laws requiring an interim government during the campaign cycle to mitigate political interference in the election process. The federal government appears intent on completing its five-year term in mid-March and thereafter going for elections within 60 days, with a general election likely in early May.
But Qadri forced the government's hand and made it publicly pledge to dissolve parliament before its five-year term expires, giving the caretaker set-up up to 90 days in office, there being a difference of 30 days in the election cycle for a parliament that completes its full term, and one that is dissolved earlier. In addition, Qadri has made the government concede that it will consult him in the process of nominating the caretaker prime minister and that the first 30 days of the campaign cycle will be used only to vet candidates, in line with constitutional provisions.
Taken together, the concessions Qadri has wrangled from the government inject further uncertainty into the run-up to the general election that must be held, at the latest, by June 2013. The obvious path to disruption — though, admittedly, few things in Pakistan follow an obvious path — is the Supreme Court, led by the mercurial Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry whose tenure expires in December and who has shown an appetite for disrupting the government's plans.
With Qadri and his followers camped out a few hundred metres from the Supreme Court, which sits adjacent to the parliament Qadri had arrived in Islamabad to besiege, Chief Justice Chaudhry dropped a bombshell, seemingly verbally ordering the arrest of the prime minister in a power-sector scam. The order turbocharged the political circus that Qadri had brought to the capital and in a moment exposed the frailties of an unpopular government dependent on many allies in an unwieldy coalition.
Protesters on the street, a hostile Supreme Court turning the screws and a powerful army watching quietly in the background, perhaps even directly encouraging political instability — the script for an early end, yet again, to a civilian-led order can be put together quickly enough. This time, though, the chief justice did not follow through on his implicit threat and Qadri was quickly isolated by the political forces, leaving him to negotiate a face-saving exit from Islamabad.
And therein lies a key lesson for the civilians: if they close ranks, if enlightened self-interest informs their actions, the democratic order can continue and strengthen itself. With the government seemingly on the defensive, forced to accommodate Qadri's demands about where precisely he wanted to stage his sit-in, Nawaz Sharif, leader of the largest opposition party, gathered a group of smaller opposition leaders at his residence in Lahore and issued a stirring rebuttal to Qadri's unconstitutional demands.
Separately, Imran Khan, who himself has ridden a wave of popular discontent to move from the fringe to the political centre, also rejected Qadri's appeal to join him at the sit-in in Islamabad — Khan was perhaps wary of throwing his weight behind a dissident who wants to derail the electoral process, which is Khan's own realistic way of attaining power for his party.
By keeping their eye on the need for the continuity of the democratic process, instead of letting their antipathy towards the Pakistan Peoples Party-led federal government get the better of them, opposition leaders, and Nawaz Sharif in particular, have formed a strong defensive wall against extra-constitutional tinkering in Pakistan.
So, for now, the democratic transition remains on track. But President Asif Ali Zardari appears adamant that parliament will carry on, as close as possible to its end of term in mid-March. That is just a few weeks away now, but it may be time enough for another crisis to hit the democratic order. The Qadri bullet may have been dodged, but few expect there to be no further shots fired between now and election time.
The writer is an Islamabad-based assistant editor with 'Dawn'
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