Eye on Islamabad

Cleric Qadri's return unsettles political equations in the run-up to Pakistan's elections

President Asif Ali Zardari has been heading what could be described as one of Pakistan's weakest civilian governments. It is ironic, and also a mark of the odds he has battled, first along with former prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, and then current PM, Raja Pervez Ashraf, that his is also poised to be the first civilian government to complete a five-year term, raising hopes for an electoral and genuinely democratic succession for the first time in Pakistan's political history. But even as the Pakistan Peoples Party-led government has been plagued by its conflict with the army and the judiciary, matters have been complicated in the run-up to the to-be announced general elections by several factors.

The return from Canada of crusading cleric, Tahir-ul-Qadri, has made both Zardari's PPP and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) nervous. Qadri has called for talks between the PPP-led government, the judiciary and the army on a caretaker administration to oversee the upcoming polls. On January 14, Qadri has promised to lead a "long march" of lakhs of supporters to Islamabad, prompting arch rivals, PPP and PML-N, to agree on a joint resolution against him in the Punjab assembly. Rattled by the support offered to Qadri by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid — both PPP allies — the PPP and PML-N have accused him of fronting for the army and security establishment and trying to delay the polls. Qadri denies he has any political ambitions, but his popularity could eclipse the likes of Imran Khan and hint at possible political realignments.

Zardari's government had successfully calibrated its battle with the army and the courts, winning the army's approval for improving general and trade ties with India. That was a very significant achievement of the Zardari-Gilani duo. However, while Gilani had to exit last year, the army appears to be once more in control of its core interests — it's back in the driver's seat in Afghanistan and seems to have won back US affection. Pakistan army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, is likely to outlast both Zardari and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who shook up Pakistan's political system. The government has said the polls will be held before May 16. The best that can be hoped for, under the circumstances, is that no untoward incident further muddies the waters.

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