After days of anti-government protests, sectarian violence and political turmoil, Pakistan managed on Thursday to retreat from the brink of the kind of chaos that has often ushered in military rule during the nation’s 65-year history.
Two cliffhanger developments provided a measure of stability in this nuclear-armed country: The Supreme Court delayed the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on corruption allegations, while the government bowed, in part, to the demands of a populist Muslim preacher whose followers had amassed in the capital by the tens of thousands in hopes of dissolving Parliament. The cleric, Tahirul Qadri, a religious moderate who heads a network of Islamic schools and charities here and worldwide, emerged mysteriously last month, returning to his native Pakistan after seven years in Canada to denounce government corruption and promote electoral reform.
On Thursday, after four days of protests that shut down the capital’s commercial core, Qadri came away with government pledges to enact measures that officials said would help weed out political candidates linked to corruption. Principally, the government agreed to dissolve Parliament before March 16, when its five-year term expires, to provide a 90-day period before elections are held.
“Allah granted us a victory and now you can go home,” Qadri told his supporters, according to the Reuters news agency.
Qadri supported the 1999 coup that brought Gen. Pervez Musharraf to power, and the cleric’s current calls for military help in establishing a caretaker government prompted many analysts to see him as a stalking horse for another dictatorship as Pakistan prepares for elections that would be its first-ever democratic transition of administrations.
Qadri denied such an intention and ultimately dropped his demand for the government’s immediate resignation.
Qadri’s followers exited the capital triumphantly, singing and chanting, after cold, rainy nights huddled in tents and around wood fires. They said they had helped prevent what they call political “dacoits” — or thieves — from looting the country by using their connections to obtain positions of power.
Ashraf is a prime example, they say. He stands accused of taking kickbacks in his previous post as energy minister in a privatization program that did nothing to solve the nation’s relentless electricity shortages.
Ashraf’s arrest was ordered Tuesday by the Supreme Court, which said Pakistan’s major anti-corruption agency had failed to act quickly enough in the case brought against him nearly a year ago. He has denied the allegations.
The evening brought another political palliative as delegates from various ruling-coalition parties signed off on a declaration drafted in Qadri’s bulletproof truck, which supporters guarded with cane poles and sticks fashioned from tree branches amid warnings that Islamic extremists were plotting to kill the anti-Taliban cleric.
His followers asserted that they hoped through the protests to change the image of Pakistan as a failing state and kleptocracy. Many demanded that the government secure the country against terrorism and rising sectarian attacks, citing last week’s bombing against Shiite Muslims that killed more than 100 people in Baluchistan province.
“This victory is not for us, but for the people of Pakistan,” said Saleem Heider, a 34-year-old high school political science teacher who joined Qadri’s movement.
But some Qadri foes said that the agreement was more public relations than anything else and that it merely reinforced constitutional requirements.
“It is a sort of honorable exit for the maverick mullah,” said Raza Rumi, a liberal writer with the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad think tank. “The existing law will be implemented, so what’s the big deal?”