It’s not often that ISPR and the US Embassy in Islamabad both issue statements denying support for the same group, but that is exactly how 2013 started when both institutions felt compelled to clarify that they are not supporting Tahir-ul-Qadri, the latest Pakistani politician threatening a “long march” to upend the political order. The cleric’s recent return to Pakistan’s political scene has unleashed an entirely new set of questions in an already confusing political scene. The Atlantic asked this week if “this Islamic cleric [can] liberalize Pakistan’s politics.” Based on his political record, there is good reason to believe that he whether or not he can, he has no intention of doing nso.
Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri’s major demand – that a caretaker government be chosen with the oversight of the military and judiciary – is actually nothing new. In fact, Qadri’s 2013 platform sounds very similar to his demand in 2001:
He proposed that elections should be held under the judicial control of the Election Commission and administrative control of the army.
Tahir-ul-Qadri claims that by giving the military a role in appointing a caretaker government he’s looking for nothing more than “consensus,” but his demand suffers from a fatal flaw – it’s patently unconstitutional. Article 224 of Pakistan’s Constitution spells out exactly how a caretaker government is to be appointed, and there is no mention of the military or the judiciary.
Additionally, Tahir-ul-Qadri’s past political efforts suggest that he’s a little more sympathetic to authoritarianism than the political liberalization The Atlantic may hope for. Tahir-ul-Qadri launched his political party, the Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) in 1989 in opposition to then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government. PAT participated in elections the following year but made no inroads, and continued as a minor opposition party following the 1990 elections that elevated Nawaz Sharif to Prime Minister.
It wasn’t until 1999, however, that Tahir-ul-Qadri started to really gain traction in Pakistani politics when he chose to support Gen Musharraf’s coup against Nawaz Sharif’s democratically-elected government. In 2002, PAT reportedly praised Musharraf’s dictatorship as “far better than that of the preceding democratic governments.”
Tahir-ul-Qadri’s support for the military establishment in the early 2000s did not translate into much tangible political power, however. Despite being part of a pro-Musharraf coalition in 2002, Qadri’s party actually garnered less electoral support than Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), a paltry 0.7%.
Tahir-ul-Qadri was elected to the National Assembly from southern Lahore (NA-127) that year, defeating PML-Q candidate Abdul Aleem Khan by just over 4,000 votes, but this was to be the only PAT seat in parliament. Two years later, Qadri’s son, Hassan Mohiuddin Qadri, ran for National Assembly in a by-election from a Lahore district (NA-89) and came in second place with about 30 percent of valid votes cast. Shortly thereafter, Qadri resigned from the National Assembly saying that, though he had supported Musharraf’s coup, he was unhappy with the way the General treated parliament as a “rubber stamp.”
PAT boycotted the 2008 elections and Tahir-ul-Qadri moved to Canada where he lived until his recent return to Pakistan – one that has raised questions about how the relatively minor political player has managed to organize and finance his current political campaign and sparked the rumors which compelled denials of support from both ISPR and the US Embassy.
Today, Pakistani analysts remain divided about what role Tahir-ul-Qadri will actually play in the coming elections. But whether Tahir-ul-Qadri is Pakistan’s new populist hero or “the establishment ineffectually lashing out at its own lack of influence,” his record suggests liberalizing Pakistan’s politics is not part of his agenda.