Pakistan’s Wildcard

The mysterious Pakistani-Canadian cleric is back, and he’s shaking up the country’s politics.

ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images
ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images

On March 17, Tahir-ul-Qadri — the Pakistani cleric who led popular demonstrations that brought Islamabad to a standstill for four days in January — plans to announce his intentions for the upcoming national elections at another major rally in Rawalpindi. Most American observers have written Qadri off as a flash in the Pakistani pan. They may need to think again. Qadri can still shake up Pakistani politics. In the near term, he remains a wildcard, disruptive in ways that might even tip the balance of power in Pakistan’s next government. Over the long run, however, Qadri has the potential to play a far more constructive role in Pakistan’s political development. Either way, Washington would do well to pay him closer attention.

It is possible that Qadri will decide to send his party, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, into the fray of national elections in May. Building a Pakistani party machine with credible, popular candidates is the work of years, not weeks, so there is a very good chance he wouldn’t win any seats. Even so, Qadri-backed politicians might steal just enough votes to spoil the plans of the front-running party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) and shift the makeup of Islamabad’s next ruling coalition.

Qadri might play an even more significant and constructive role over the long run by choosing not to contest elections. As an outside voice favoring reform, religious moderation, and better governance, Qadri would offer a glimmer of hope for a future in which Pakistani opposition figures hold their nation’s leaders accountable to the nation’s constitution and laws. That would represent a genuine, farsighted contribution to the maturation of democracy in Pakistan, the best hope for long-term economic development and stability of the sort that would render Pakistan a far less dangerous and fragile state.

Qadri, a former law professor and acclaimed Islamic scholar, stormed out of his unlikely home base in Toronto, Canada, this past December after having disappeared from the scene for eight years. The media portrayed his out-of-the-blue return to Pakistan and rapid ascendance as mysterious. Who had backed Qadri’s massive media blitz? Rumor swirled. Some said it was Washington, again out to influence Pakistani politics. Others saw the hand of the Pakistani military looking to derail the electoral process.

Contrary to many press reports that depicted him as a detached Islamic scholar with little in the way of a political background, Qadri has a decades-long history of dealing with all of Pakistan’s top leaders since the 1980s, from Generals Zia and Musharraf to Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Today, Qadri’s politics are motivated by deep disillusionment with all of them, military and civilian alike. Such sentiments place him squarely in the mainstream of Pakistani public opinion.

Qadri’s movement has found is greatest strength — and probably most of the cash that fed his impressive media machine — in the well of popular disgust with Pakistan’s status quo of corruption, power outages, and terrible violence. Among Pakistanis there is little stomach for another round of military rule, and none for political intrusion by outside forces like the United States. But everyone, including Pakistan’s most powerful civilian and military leaders, admits the state needs to do a far better job at governing. Qadri, like the reform-minded cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, taps into this sentiment.

That said, Qadri too often invokes the need for a democratic revolution to "save the state, not politics." These rants sound a lot like the sort of arguments Pakistan’s military has used to justify interference in the political process. For this, Qadri is justly criticized for veering into authoritarian, or at least technocratic, territory. By this point it should be clear that Pakistan has no legitimate alternative to electoral democracy, by way of a messianic cleric or otherwise.

Stripped of the fiery rhetoric, however, the rest of Qadri’s argument boils down to the idea that Pakistan should adhere to its own constitutional rules during the upcoming elections. Here the cleric stands on firmer ground. In January, before he left the stage in Islamabad and sent his loyal followers home, he achieved signed promises along those lines from the country’s ruling coalition.

Qadri, of course, is not alone in pushing to improve the quality of Pakistan’s electoral process. A powerful election commission, headed by the fiercely independent jurist Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, is backed by a team of civil servants who have been toiling away for several years to improve the quality of the nation’s voter lists and to implement a process of collecting and counting votes that is immune — or nearly so — from the rigging practices that have plagued Pakistan’s history. Within the parameters set by their political masters, they appear to have done an impressive job.

Yet major obstacles remain. In February, Qadri raised a legitimate legal challenge against the manner in which some members of the election commission were selected. Rather than ruling on the merits of Qadri’s complaint, Pakistan’s Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry tossed it out on the flimsiest of all grounds that Qadri — who holds dual citizenship in Canada — has no standing to plead before Pakistan’s courts. Pakistan’s political parties accepted that farce of a ruling for fear that reconstituting the election commission would delay national elections, something they say the country’s fragile democracy cannot afford.

Qadri’s critiques of the corrupt status quo are more credible than the politicians’ rebuttals. Pakistan’s leaders seem more eager to perpetuate a failing system than to reform it. Recent moves by President Asif Ali Zardari to cut a deal with Tehran on a gas pipeline project are but the latest examples of fecklessness and time-wasting so pervasive in Pakistan’s corridors of power. Even under the best of circumstances, a pipeline would take years to complete, so it will do nothing to solve Pakistan’s immediate energy crisis. Still, the president’s diplomatic charade permits his ruling party to claim it is taking action, even fighting back against American pressure. Today’s pipeline deals will only saddle the next government, likely a weak coalition of parties from today’s opposition benches, with fantastic promises that can only distract from Pakistan’s real economic and security problems.

Had Qadri returned to Pakistan several years ago, he might have had a realistic chance of turning his own political party into a legitimate contender. And it is all to the good that his demonstrations have neither delayed the national electoral process nor provided any serious opening for the military to reassert a direct role in Pakistan’s politics. But Pakistani politics do not end after the election; they merely begin a new round. In that context, Qadri — along with a variety of other reform-minded Pakistanis — has the potential to play an increasingly important role. If they can hold their leaders’ feet to the fire and use the media megaphone to fight for improved governance no matter who holds the majority, Pakistan will benefit. Along the way, reformers would also build the credibility of their own parties so that Pakistani voters will have better options when they go to the polls the next time around.

For its part, the United States should also lend its voice to constitutional rule in Pakistan without picking sides. Washington has a major stake in Pakistani stability, and at this point the best U.S. officials can hope is that Pakistan makes its way through 2013’s leadership transitions without major mishap. After that, if opposition figures such as Qadri can build their movements into permanent features of the Pakistani political process, there may be greater reason for optimism over the long run.

Daniel Markey is a senior research professor of international relations and academic director of the global policy program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His website:

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