A cleric who led tens of thousands of protestors to Islamabad to push for electoral reforms demanded Pakistan’s government dismiss parliament and resign, escalating a confrontation months ahead of a landmark poll.
Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, 61, who heads an Islamic group with 90 branches worldwide, said in a 2 a.m. speech to supporters who had arrived in the capital through the night that the national and four provincial assemblies must first be dissolved, setting a now expired deadline of 11 a.m. After that, “people will take things into their own hands,” he said.
Qadri’s comments mark a more hardline approach after he had earlier asked the government to consult the army and judiciary on the appointment of a neutral electoral commission and a caretaker administration before a ballot is held. He has vowed to hold a sit-in in the capital that he says will amount to the “biggest Tahrir Square,” a reference to the Cairo area that was the center of Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011.
“What he is asking is unwarranted, unconstitutional and illegal because he has no authority,” said Rashid Ahmed Khan, a professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sargodha in central Pakistan, who says he has known Qadri for years.
Pakistan’s stocks fell 0.7 percent to 16,512.75 at 10:58 a.m. in Karachi, the lowest in a week.
Police briefly clashed with Qadri’s supporters today as they tried to enter the highly-protected red zone where most of the foreign embassies are located, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told the Geo TV network in live comments. Malik put the size of the crowd backing Qadri at 20,000 people. Geo, citing intelligence agencies, said it could be twice that figure, far below the turnout claimed by the cleric.
“Qadri’s demands are unconstitutional,” Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said in a press conference last night. “He has the right for a peaceful demonstration, but there is no mechanism in our constitution through which we can meet his demands.”
The cleric’s central challenge for the interim administration he proposes is the removal of corrupt politicians and a bar on them from taking part in elections. His supporters traveled from the eastern city of Lahore, the center of his religious movement, in buses, trucks and cars.
“Today is the day of true revolution in Pakistan,” said 19-year-old Asma Nazir, who had arrived from Abbottabad, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the capital, to attend the march. “We will not leave this place until we get rid of these corrupt politicians.”
Qadri’s rise to prominence after he returned from Canada last month comes as President Asif Ali Zardari’s government is set to become the first democratically elected administration to complete its five-year term and transfer power through a ballot by mid-year, in a country ruled for half its history by the military. The cleric’s message may be aimed at Pakistanis disillusioned by established political parties that they blame for corruption and a faltering economy.
Fourteen percent of Pakistanis viewed Zardari favorably in a Pew Research Center survey in June, down from 64 percent in 2008. About 87 percent are dissatisfied with the country’s direction, viewing the economy, crime and corruption as the biggest problems, it said. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minor 4.2 percentage points.
Under existing law, Zardari’s government will leave office by the end of March, and a caretaker administration approved by a majority of parties represented in parliament will oversee elections within three months. Qadri’s dual citizenship of Pakistan and Canada would bar him from standing in an election.
“The government must be aggressive in its tone,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences. “They’ve given him space he doesn’t deserve.”
Rais said the government had two options: let the crowd stay in central Islamabad, hoping it will wither away, or arrest Qadri and risk clashes between the cleric’s supporters and police.
Qadri formed his party, Pakistan Awami Tehreek, or the Pakistan People’s Movement in 1989 and was elected a member of parliament under army rule in 2002. It’s his role as the head of a Sufi Muslim-dominated spiritual foundation, the Minhaj-ul-Quran, that provides his popular support and funding, he has said. The body, which according to its website promotes inter-faith tolerance, has offices in countries including the U.S., the U.K. and Canada.
Qadri’s sudden appearance after years out of Pakistan politics, and his demands that the army have a role in determining the country’s electoral future, have triggered speculation in the media that the security establishment may be behind his movement. Both Qadri and the army deny any link.
After the scholar’s speech early this morning, protesters moved closer to parliament, near where Qadri plans to hold an indefinite demonstration until the legislature is dissolved. He gave no more details of his intentions.
Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf today ordered the Islamabad administration to help women and children who are attending the demonstration as the temperature dropped to 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius). Security forces had placed shipping containers around the capital to control crowds, while the government had built a stage from which Qadri addressed his supporters.
Shops, offices and schools were closed for a second day in the capital where demonstrators have occupied the main highway leading to parliament.
“Either there will be bloodshed or the government and Qadri will reach an understanding to allow the people to go home,” said Ashfaque Hasan Khan, a professor at the business school of National University of Sciences & Technology in Islamabad. “These people have not come to go home empty-handed.”