Pakistan began talks with a popular cleric as thousands of his supporters rallied in front of parliament for a third day, signaling an end to a standoff that challenged the government’s legitimacy ahead of elections.
The administration of President Asif Ali Zardari sent a 10- member team to meet Tahir-ul-Qadri in his bullet-proof bunker in central Islamabad, a stage the scholar had used to deliver a series of passionate speeches demanding the government dissolve the legislature and implement reforms to stop corrupt politicians from contesting polls expected in May.
“All of you stay here, we will go after victory,” Qadri, 61, told his followers, including women and children who had danced and shouted slogans through heavy rain showers during the day. “Our democratic struggle has entered a final stage. Today is probably the last day of our fight,” he said.
The negotiations may enable both Qadri and the government to save face, said independent political analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi. “Qadri knows that he is in a difficult situation after opposition parties rejected his demands,” Rizvi said by phone from Lahore. “This is also a crisis for the government, so they may be able to find a middle way, like an assurance the Election Commission will carry out scrutiny in line with the constitution to ensure honest candidates.”
About 500 meters from the protest venue, the government was fighting a different battle as the Supreme Court questioned the country’s top anti-corruption official on his refusal to obey its order to arrest the Premier Raja Pervez Ashraf and other officials over alleged corruption in power projects.
Pakistan’s top judges on Jan. 15 ruled that the National Accountability Bureau should arrange warrants for the arrest of Ashraf and 15 others, according to the court order. The bureau’s chairman, Fasih Bokhari, told the Supreme Court today that he didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute the accused. The allegations date from a time when Ashraf was power minister.
Power producers were paid “exorbitant rentals,” while their contracts were not transparent and violated the principles of fair competition, the Supreme Court said March 30 last year. Ashraf has not been convicted of any crime. Geo television reported the case was adjourned until Jan. 23.
The prime minister took power last year after his predecessor was removed by top judges for refusing to order the reopening of graft charges against the president. That confrontation with the Supreme Court, and speculation that it was fueled by a military seeking to remove Zardari from power, distracted the elected government amid a fight with Taliban insurgents and a record power crisis. Rolling outages closed factories and sparked street protests.
Coming as Qadri offered a rallying point for disaffected Pakistanis in the heart of Islamabad, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s latest bid to sanction the government has reignited concerns the top court is overstepping its constitutional mandate in a bid to weaken Zardari and his party.
“The judiciary seems to be carving out an extended role for itself,” Rizvi said. “It is another non-elected institution trying to dominate elected institutions. Previously this was being done by the military, now it is the judiciary.”
The twin jolt this week could hasten preparations for the poll, as Zardari’s democratically elected administration seeks to create history by becoming the first to complete its five- year term and transfer power through a ballot in a country ruled for half its history by the military.
In Karachi, where the benchmark share index dropped the most in 17 months on Jan. 16, stocks rose 0.7 percent today, the steepest gain for a week, as opposition parties led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz refused to back Qadri’s protest.
Analysts including Eurasia Group’s Shamila Chaudhary said the court’s intervention this week amid Qadri’s demonstration was an opportunistic attempt to add to the woes of the Zardari administration.
In an e-mailed analysis, Chaudhary said that the army would watch and tacitly support “constitutional efforts to weaken” the government which the “military views with contempt for its poor economic as well as security track record.”
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.
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