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Running scared

With parliamentary elections only a few months away, Pakistan’s political landscape has been shaken up by an unlikely player. Tahirul Qadri has upset the calculations of most political parties by bursting on to the scene with a stunningly successful political rally at the Minar-e-Pakistan on December 23, 2012 and with the demand for immediate reforms in the country’s broken electoral system.

To back up his demand, Qadri has announced plans for a peaceful protest march of ‘four million’ on Islamabad. Even though this figure is wildly unrealistic, the possibility of hundreds of thousands of protesters setting up a ‘Tahrir Square’ in the federal capital is being taken seriously.

Qadri’s attack on the political monopoly of our corrupt ruling class and his demand for immediate electoral reforms has struck a positive chord with wide sections of the public, going far beyond those who are associated with the organisation that he heads. Not knowing how to respond to this challenge, much of our political class is running scared. Some of them, backed by sections of the media, have resorted to wild conspiracy theories and slander to cause confusion in the public mind. Opposition to Qadri’s demands is one of the few issues on which the PML-N and the PPP are speaking the same language.

They have claimed that Qadri has been sent to the country to derail democracy. It has even been insinuated, without a shred of evidence, that he is acting with the blessings of the “establishment,” the favourite demon of our bumbling politicians, or some other hidden hands. Nawaz Sharif, who hopes to emerge victorious in the coming elections, has taken the lead in publicly denouncing Qadri’s political programme and has assured the prime minister of support in meeting the challenge posed by the planned protest march.

Among the political parties, only the MQM has expressed full support for Qadri’s declared agenda of electoral reform. The MQM is even ready, at least for now, to join in the protest march on Islamabad. The PML-Q and the PTI have expressed qualified endorsement for Qadri’s reform agenda, but not for the protest march.

While Qadri’s demand for electoral reform and an impartial caretaker government is unexceptionable, it is also a fact that his past political record and his weakness for self-publicity make him an easy target for his detractors. To start with, anyone who wraps himself in robes of spirituality while pursuing political goals automatically becomes suspect. Qadri has gone even further. He has awarded himself the title of ‘Shaikh-ul-Islam’ and taken to wearing exotic robes and headgear associated with Middle Eastern clerics.

There are also several other reasons for scepticism on his political programme. First, Qadri has not explained why he waited for so long to raise the issue of electoral reform, and did so when only a few months are left before the election.

It is also not known if he intends to stay in the country long enough to push the changes he is pressing for. Anyone who is striving to break the stubborn mould of Pakistan’s dynastic and patronage-driven politics should know that this goal cannot be achieved by a few public rallies, even on mammoth scales and spread over weeks, but requires a sustained and focussed political struggle over a considerable period of time. It is not clear that he is willing to make that kind of effort. Since he has declared that he is not going to be a candidate in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, it would seem that his present stay in the country is going to be a short one.

Second, the statements he has made on his political programme since his recent arrival in Pakistan have not been quite consistent. In his Lahore speech, he argued that Article 254 of the constitution allows postponement of elections for the electoral reform to be carried out. Since then, he has modified his stand and called for electoral reforms within the time stipulated by the constitution for fresh elections. Besides, having declared his willingness to become caretaker prime minister, he later retracted that statement.

Third, Qadri’s demands for the formation of a caretaker government by January 10, and for the involvement of the judiciary and the army in its selection, are unconstitutional. A caretaker government can only be formed once parliament completes its term, and neither the army nor the judiciary have any role in the decision.

Fourth, Qadri is a Canadian citizen. He has made Canada his new home and has been living in that country during recent years. As a national of a foreign state, he is disqualified from being elected to parliament and from being the leader of a political party in Pakistan. If he wants to become a serious player in Pakistani politics, he must first renounce his foreign citizenship, something for which he has not shown any willingness so far.

Fifth, Qadri was one of the most ardent supporters of Musharraf’s martial law and of his ‘referendum’. Since Qadri has not repented to this day for his support to the military dictator, a question mark still hangs over his commitment to genuine political reform. His past record is tainted also by his association with some of the political dynasties he now denounces.

He had at one time been in the pay of the Ittefaq business house owned by the Nawaz Sharif family. In 2003, he had Benazir Bhutto sign up as a life member of his Minhaj-ul-Quran during her exile in London. She later claimed she had done so only out of “courtesy,” without really meaning to join the organisation.

Sixth, and last, Qadri has not yet divulged any specifics of the electoral reforms he is striving for. He said in a TV interview last week that 80 percent of the draft of the proposed reform had been completed by his organisation. He has now set up a so-called Election Reforms Commission, which he says will complete that task within the period allowed by the constitution for fresh elections. The ‘commission’ set up by Qadri is chaired by Kanwar Dilshad, who served as secretary of the Election Commission appointed by Musharraf which distinguished itself by its total subservience to the wishes of the military dictator.

Electoral reforms are of course absolutely essential if we are to purge our legislatures and government of political dynasties, tax defaulters, looters of public money and other parasites. But the initiative for this reform will not come from our parliament, which is itself the product of a corrupt electoral system. The truth is that the parliament, as composed under present system, is a major part of the problem and cannot be part of the solution.

The response of our ‘elected representatives’ to the publication of data on the tax cheats in our legislatures is instructive. Far from being shamed by these disclosures, they have been gunning for those who unmasked the faces of the defaulting legislators. The Public Accounts Committee has added its voice to that of the Senate Finance Committee in demanding punishment for the whistleblowers. Like the Senate committee, the PAC had not a word of censure for the tax-evading members of parliament.

Qadri has done well to focus public attention on the urgency of electoral reform and to drive home the point that this reform will only come if there is public pressure on the government and parliament from the street. The protest march announced by Qadri is a good beginning, but a much bigger and longer campaign will be required to achieve this goal.

Electoral reform, moreover, is not only about preventing election malpractices and excluding from parliament those who are disqualified by the constitution. It is also necessary to discard the present first-past-the-post system – which is skewed in favour of the so-called ‘electables’ and the larger political parties – and replace it with one that allows for equitable representation of all socio-economic classes and political parties.

The writer is a former member of the foreign service. Email: asifezdi @yahoo.com

Asif Ezdi, "Running scared," The News. 2013-01-06.
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