A Pakistani Muslim scholar with Canadian nationality has announced to transform Islamabad into "the world's biggest Tahrir Square" on January 14th ahead of this year's upcoming general elections. Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri, a cogent public speaker, has made an abrupt but a robust comeback in Pakistan's politics after spending nearly five years in Canada. Qadri, previously an unpopular politician but still a cleric with a large following of religious disciples, is asking for electoral reforms prior to the next polls.
There are two fundamental problems with Qadri's demand.
First, he has given an absolutely unrealistic ultimatum of mere two weeks to the ruling Pakistan People's Party (P.P.P.) to carry out vague electoral reforms, for example to ensure the election of 'honest people' to the parliament. In order to conduct these reforms, Dr. Qadri, while citing the Article 254 of the Pakistani constitution, justifies the postponement of the general elections which are expected to take place in May. The mainstream political parties, such as the P.P.P. and the Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, want to go for elections without any interruptions soon after the completion of the current term of the parliament because they oppose any kind of derailment of the democratic process.
Second, Dr. Qadri is asking for representation for the powerful Pakistani military and the politically active judiciary in the interim government, a demand that clearly clashes with the very spirit of democracy.
Besides bringing coups and derailing the democratic governments in the past, the military in Pakistan has remained the actual center of political authority while sitting behind the arena even during the days of semi-democratic governments. Dr. Qadri's posture and dramatic rise on the political landscape has left pundits with speculations that the army is patronizing him to a) oust the current civilian government; b) provide a constitutional role for the military into politics; c) create an alternative, but subservient to the military, political force to counter the two major mainstream parties and, finally, to reinforce the idea of Islamic governance through a 'moderate cleric.'
Dr. Qadri poses a genuine threat to Pakistan's current democratic system. His agenda is ambiguous because he says he does not intend to contest elections. That said, he is not a game-changer but a real party-spoiler. Yet, his popularity is gaining momentum with the passage of each day which means the chaotic siege of Islamabad is almost inevitable. On December 23, Dr. Qadri stunned political observers with an extraordinary political rally in the city of Lahore. He named his rally "save the state not politics" and he set January 10, as the deadline to the government to meet his demands.
Some key coalition partners of the ruling P.P.P., such as the Muttahida Quami Movement (M.Q.M), a powerful political force in the Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, have also extended support to Dr. Qadri's campaign against the government. The M.Q.M., often described as an unreliable political ally, says it is also going to join Dr. Qadri in his long march to Islamabad.
On January 1, 2013, the M.Q.M. hosted Dr. Qadri in Karachi and provided him an extraordinary platform to address a mammoth crowed and gain enormous media attention. The M.Q.M., unlike the rest of the mainstream political parties in Pakistan which are dominated by rich land lords, flaunts its middle-class credentials and equal opportunities of progress for of its members. Although the M.Q.M. is a coalition partner of the P.P.P., it seems to be in the brink of ditching the ruling party and jumping on Dr. Qadri's bandwagon.
The Pakistan Muslim League (P.M.L.-Quaid-e-Azam), the party that ruled Pakistan under former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, is another major political party that also supports Dr. Qadri. After attaining ample support from these parties, Qadri is now capable of shaking Pakistan's existing democratic system, which already provides the procedure of appointing a caretaker government ahead of the elections.
So, what is going to happen if Qadri takes over the nation's capital on January 14?
"If Dr. Qadri's long march materializes, 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," says Najam Sethi, editor of the Friday Times.
Mr. Sethi, believes another popular anti-America opposition leader, Imran Khan, could also join Dr. Qadri.
"Imran Khan and other oppositionists including pro-military religious groups and organisations could join hands with Dr Qadri to exploit the occasion to destabilize the government and engineer its ouster," he wrote in a recent editorial, "The interventionist judiciary might throw its weight behind such a move. Then the stage would be set for a postponement of elections and installation of a technocratic government for both reform and accountability for a couple of years."
Sections of the Pakistani media, such as the English language newspaper Express Tribune, are very critical of Qadri's ambitions and believe his campaign is "engineered by anti-democratic forces" who are using "extraconstitutional means" to fix Pakistan's issues. In a skeptical editorial, the Tribune wrote:
One of the saddest aspects of democratic politics in Pakistan today is how the very political parties who are supposed to be safeguarding are the ones posing the greatest threat... All the chatter surrounding military backing for Qadri is also a worrying sign that the military intends to influence the upcoming general elections. This would be a death blow from which our nascent democracy may never recover.
Dr. Qadiri has been striving for decades through his non-profit organization, the Minhaj-ul-Quran International, to bring an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. The Pakistani military is not averse to one such revolution. After the failed experience of induct through the Taliban, the military now seems convinced that its handpicked 'moderate cleric' will do the job better because he will not receive much resistance from the international community, particularly the United States. After experiencing a decade-long troubled relationship with Pakistan for nearly a decade, the United States now understands that it is not possible to dissuade the Pakistanis from wanting more Islam in their everyday life. Dr. Qadri has never been so close to his dream of a peaceful Islamic revolution nor have the Americans been able to come across an "agreeable" and "moderate" Islamist figure in Pakistan; this is how Qadri's public relations mangers plan to depict him. Has Pakistan got its Khomeini? January 14 will help us decide.