Pakistan Cleric Calls Off Sit-in After a Voting Accord

A Muslim cleric who besieged Pakistan’s capital with thousands of protesters ended a four-day sit-in after agreeing a pact with the government on mostly symbolic changes to election laws ahead of a May poll.

Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, who heads an Islamic group with 90 branches worldwide, announced the accord yesterday after about five hours of talks with government officials in his bullet-proof bunker in Islamabad, a location the scholar had used to deliver passionate speeches demanding that the government dissolve the legislature and implement changes he said would thwart corrupt politicians seeking election.

“I congratulate you that Allah has given you victory,” Qadri, 61, told his followers, including women and children who had danced and shouted slogans through heavy rain showers during the day.

Under the accord, the National Assembly will be dissolved at a date before the scheduled March 16, while the election commission will bid to ensure candidates aren’t corrupt and meet all legal requirements. The government will propose names of two impartial candidates for the caretaker prime minister to oversee polls after consulting Qadri’s party.

The deal was “nothing but a face-saver for Qadri” that insists on the implementation of provisions already part of the constitution, said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. At the same time, it allowed the government to end the protest without violence, Rais said. “I would term the accord a very civilized eviction notice.”

Popular Rage

Qadri’s protest after he returned from Canada last month came as President Asif Ali Zardari’s government seeks to become the first democratically elected administration to complete its five-year term and transfer power via a ballot. The country has been ruled for half its history by the military.

While the cleric’s message was aimed at Pakistanis disillusioned by established political parties that they blame for corruption and a faltering economy, Qadri’s earlier demand that the army and judiciary play a role in determining a caretaker government before the election spurred media commentary that the military may have encouraged his protest.

What’s clear is that Qadri’s demands appealed to many Pakistanis, said Islamabad-based political analyst and columnist Farrukh Saleem. “What we witnessed was people crying out for change -- change in electoral laws, change in a political doctrine” that at the moment primarily benefits the elite, Saleem said.

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-minus 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.