FROM a base in converted shipping container, placed on Islamabad’s main thoroughfare, Tahir ul Qadri, a populist cleric who has been demanding changes to Pakistan’s electoral system, delivered thunderous addresses all this week. Many saw the troubling influence of Pakistan’s powerful armed forces behind him. That may be why he felt able to make extraordinary demands on the government.In the end, late on January 17th, the government appeared to bow to the mysterious cleric—who has proved himself a brilliant orator—saying it would meet most of his calls for electoral reforms. Some had suspected that the army was trying to find a way to postpone the elections altogether. These are due in the next few months, and would mark Pakistan’s first democratic transition, wherein an elected government would complete its term and hand over the reins to an elected successor.
Mr Qadri’s demand for reforms reached far beyond the constitution, in the name of creating a “real democracy” and kicking out corrupt politicians. He led some 50,000 followers to Islamabad (including many women), who camped out in the capital close to the parliament building. It was not so much a protest as an occupation of Islamabad. They vowed not to move until their demands were met.
The white-bearded religious cleric, who heads a cult-like but moderate Islamic organisation, seemed to have unlimited funds available to him. He had been delivering deadlines for weeks to the government. On January 14th he had also declared that the government and its ministers were no longer in office, as they had been “dismissed” by him.
On January 17th he gave the government just 90 minutes to come to him and start negotiations. Ministers and other senior officials from the ruling coalition, which is led by the Pakistan Peoples Party, went rushing to his shipping container, which was kept raised above the crowd. After some five hours of talks there, a written agreement emerged that in its language and substance was Mr Qadri’s agenda.
There will now be a one-month "pre-clearance" of election candidates by the Election Commission, which is to probe their honesty before they are allowed to stand. The agreement also gives Mr Qadri’s organisation a say in the appointment of the caretaker prime minister, who is required by the constitution to oversee the election period. Mr Qadri had also called for the Election Commission to be reconstituted. This too is to be considered at further negotiations—which will be held at the headquarters of Mr Qadri’s outfit.
No date has been announced for the election, but there is an undertaking now from the government to wind itself up before its five-year term ends, on March 16th. In all, this hardly shortens the government’s period in office. Thereafter, the caretaker regime will be in power for three months. If the government, as it seemed to have planned, saw out every day of its term, the caretaker regime would have been in place for two months or less.
The government’s ceding to so many of Mr Qadri’s demands was all the more surprising after the parties of the political opposition, led by Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister, came out in support of the ruling party—branding against the movement behind the religious cleric as a “conspiracy against democracy”. At least the government was able to disperse the protesters without violence. A bloody confrontation might have provided an excuse for the army to stage a coup.
Mr Qadri’s talent is to tap into a deep well of popular discontent. Pakistan’s politicians are by and large corrupt, venal and often contemptuous of the people they serve. Mr Qadri mixes these political grievances with an awareness of other ills, including terrorism, unemployment and energy shortages. That seething public anger is also the reason why Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician, with his similar message of cleaning up politics, has been able to attract big crowds to his rallies.
The government might have saved itself from the full brunt of this onslaught—its wily leaders are skilled at finding ways to preserve their spell in office. In the long term however, politicians never be able to become more secure in their offices unless they start delivering better government. There appears to be ample opportunity for a next demagogue to come along and harvest the fury that has been so widely sown. Banyan for The Economist (Picture credit: AFP)