Pakistan – A Turbulent Beginning to 2013?

| by Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle

( January 23, 2013, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Pakistan began 2013 on a turbulent note with siege by thousands of supporters of Dr Tahirul Qadri of the Tehreek-e-Minhajul Quran (TMQ) to the capital forcing the government to negotiate an agreement on reforming the electoral process. For change mainstream political parties in Pakistan joined hands to put the cleric completely on the defensive and forcing him to call off the agitation.

While he had promised to bring millions to Islamabad there were just about thousands of his supporters who braved the harsh winter. It was hardly a Tahrir square as some observers dubbed the gathering but perhaps a crowd that was controlled by the cleric’s brigade as well as heavy deployment of security forces.

The crisis that had gripped the Pakistani capital Islamabad generated by Dr Tahirul Qadri’s supporters camping to demand electoral reforms thus ended as dramatically as it began. While the government and Dr Qadri agreed upon various issues including dissolution of assemblies, electoral reforms, composition of Election Commission of Pakistan and appointment of caretaker PM, most of these were already in the offing and could not necessarily be credited to Dr Qadri’s agitation per se. The three-page ‘Islamabad Long March Declaration’ signed by him and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf turned out to be a whimper with both sides claiming victory.

Having gained support of the opposition which has come out united against the demands of the TMQ chief Dr Tahirul Qadri, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led government would now have to work out the overall plan for conduct of elections and assure the opposition of free and fair hustings.

The main contention of Dr Qadri and the likes appears to be to scuttle the reforms undertaken by the government and the opposition in tandem under the 18th Amendment, which enjoins the treasury and opposition to come to a consensus on a Chief Election Commissioner and a caretaker setup that would be non-partisan and conduct free, fair and transparent elections. The support that Mr Qadri has got from the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf (PTI) of Imran Khan who some suspect have close links with the Army has led some to believe that the military was again staging a soft coup of sorts to upstage democracy.

The forces behind Mr Qadri may have however played out their hand given the strong unity displayed by the political parties in the country. If the plot was engineered by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) as some believe then it is apparent that by supporting foreign based actors such as Qadri the agency is losing its hold on Pakistan’s political spectrum where it could split one party against the other earlier.

However even as political leadership in Pakistan led by the President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf as well as the other coalition parties and the opposition are patting themselves for overcoming the latest crisis, this may not be the last time that such a situation will be faced. Underlying the protests was also a sense of frustration that was felt by the people and the government has also been very dodgy in dealing with rising anger in the public for its non performance. Thus while democracy in Pakistan has been secured and that rules out Tahrir square type of uprising as there is perhaps too much liberty for the people to voice their opinion in public openly, governance remains a major concern in the country. The failure of the PPP led government on this front may cost it the next elections so the main hope of improvement in the overall situation in the year ahead seems dim.

Meanwhile the Supreme Court sought the arrest of the sitting Prime Minister Mr Raja Pervez Ashraf on a corruption case under investigation by the National Accountability Bureau on the very same day as Dr Qadri laid siege to Islamabad. For the Supreme Court Chief Justice Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry to take such a decision knowing full well how the situation was developing in the Capital is seen by many as a part of a conspiracy to derail the democracy and push the government on its knees. The jury is still out on the outcome of this case.

On the other hand on the counter terrorism front the spectre of return of the Taliban to Swat a province that was cleared of rebels a few years back is ominous though the signs were evident earlier with the firing on Malala Yousafzai the girl activist who was fighting for rights for education for women in the tribal areas. While the crisis of governance and security in Balochistan is also looming large even as the tribal areas may find little relief for the military and the Line of Control with India was also afire.

Thus 2013 a year of elections could well be of a crisis for Pakistan if the first fortnight is any indication. With maverick forces as Dr Tahirul Qadri a religious preacher with a large following but without any political background holding the capital to ransom the challenge on the political front wherein disparate forces will create crisis situations for the administration is more than evident. Whether Qadri’s demands were justified or not is a moot question, the key issue is that he has launched this agitation with the backing of some elements within the Establishment?