The Tahir-ul-Qadri show appears to have ended as quickly as it began. After brief talks with the government, a five-point agreement was signed and both sides declared victory. In fact, in many ways it seems that almost everyone came out a winner – Dr. Qadri got the government to agree to give him some input in who will serve as caretake Prime Minister; the PPP-coalition government skillfully defused a potentially messy situation not through force, but through compromise; and the PML-N did not hijack the demonstration or exploit it for short-term gain, but emphasized the importance of following the Constitution and the democratic process. The only group that really gained nothing was Imran Khan. The question is, did the events of the past week actually render him irrelevant?
Over the past few years, Imran Khan has spent significant time and money trying to transform his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), from a one-man show to a national political player. His mammoth rallies in 2011 promised to do just that. But even at the time, Michael Kugelman saw this as potentially peaking too soon.
Kugelman had an important point. Elections were not expected for almost two years, and there’s a chasm of difference between building excitement about a candidate and actually forcing early elections. And as every political professional knows too well, time management is essential to a successful campaign – with too little time you can’t effectively engage voters; with too much you run the risk of losing their interest.
By coming out so strong so early, Imran Khan took a big gamble. True, he needed the time to not only gather support but to demonstrate that he was a legitimate contender. Politicians at the level of Javed Hashmi and Shah Mehmood Qureshi weren’t going to join PTI unless they had significant reason to believe that it had a chance in national elections. But with so much time before the current administration’s term comes to an end, there was a real risk that something could go wrong or that people would lose interest.
A few months ago, Michael Kugelman revisited his 2011 thesis, suggesting that Imran Khan was “taking some time out to rethink his problematic political strategy and platform.” While Khan was thinking, though, Tahir-ul-Qadri was preparing to act. The Canadian cleric arrived in Pakistan not years, but months before elections were expected. His timing was impeccable.
While Qadri was leading his supporters on a march to Islamabad, Imran Khan was forced to decide if he was going to join Qadri’s march – as a supporting actor. In the end, Khan chose to try to support Qadri’s agenda without actually joining his action.
Khan’s Tweet betrays him, though. Qadri’s agenda was about who had a say in choosing the caretaker government. If that was Imran Khan’s agenda, as he claimed, the march would have to come before the formation of the caretaker government otherwise their demands would be moot.
From the sidelines, Khan held a press conference and issued demands of his own – including that President Zardari resign immediately; that the Election Commission of Pakistan take notice of “pre-poll rigging” in the form of “distributing laptops and through the Benazir Income Support Programme”; and that the sitting Prime Minister be arrested. But by this point, hardly anyone was paying attention to Imran Khan. Tahir-ul-Qadri was the man of the hour.
Two days later, Tahir-ul-Qadri achieved what Imran Khan couldn’t achieve in two years – he got to government to agree to a specific timeline and set of reforms that would help shape the coming elections. Most importantly, Tahir-ul-Qadri – whose Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) party has exactly zero elected seats in parliament – managed to get the extraordinary concession of a seat at the table in the discussion of who will lead the caretaker setup.
Today, Reuters reported that PAT is considering contesting elections after sitting them out in 2008. Despite turning out an estimated 50,000 people to his protest, however, it is unlikely that Qadri has the electoral support to present much of a threat to the PPP or PML-N’s entrenched vote bases. But Qadri may be able to present a significant threat to PTI by splitting the protest vote.
In politics, nothing succeeds like success, and after the events of the past week, some of Imran Khan’s supporters may see in Tahir-ul-Qadri a more viable vehicle for their reformist agenda. That Qadri’s Minhaj-ul-Quran is aligned with a moderate, sufi-informed school of Islam also gives the PAT leader religious credentials without the accusations of being a Taliban sympathizer.
Whether or not Tahir-ul-Qadri does decide to contest the elections, however, it remains to be seen if Imran Khan can recover from a week in which he was relegated to the sidelines during an event that capitalized on what were supposed to be his two major strengths – the ability to mobilize a large number of people, and public desire for a new choice in politics. Tahir-ul-Qadri may have come to Islamabad looking to end the political careers of Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, but as the dust begins to settle, it looks like Imran Khan may be the one who stands to lose.