ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s government, under extreme pressure from a political protest movement that’s paralyzed Islamabad, was pushed Wednesday to announce a date for an election that would mark a historic democratic transfer of power.
Despite calls for months from the political opposition to clarify the timing of the election, there had been no official word. But the arrival in the capital Monday of charismatic preacher Tahir ul Qadri leading 50,000 supporters meant the government needed the opposition to stand with it against what Islamabad sees as an attempt to end Pakistan’s latest experiment with democracy.
Wednesday, Qadri demanded dissolution of the government, parliament and the Election Commission. According to him, there’s a “fake democracy” run by criminals that must be cleaned up before any election can be held.
If those elections do take place, it would be the first time that an elected government completes its term and hands over the reins to another elected administration. In the past, the military has stepped in to topple elected governments, using civilian proxies or taking over itself. The army hanged Pakistan’s first elected prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in 1979, and has ruled Pakistan directly for half its existence.
The government suspects that the judiciary and the military are supporting Qadri in an effort to stop the election. The United States, which supported the military government once led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has backed democracy in the key U.S. ally since 2008.
Once the government calls for the election, the constitution mandates that a supposedly neutral caretaker administration assume power for the next two or three months to oversee the polls.
Khursheed Shah, a senior government minister, said the election would be sometime from May 4 to 6, and no later. “I’m giving you a date,” Shah told reporters.
Whether the government could survive until the end of its five-year term had been in doubt since Qadri’s onslaught. He’s vowed to keep the protesters in Islamabad until his demands of political reforms are met.
By coincidence or design, the Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf in an unrelated case of alleged corruption.
The political opposition, fearing that Qadri’s agenda is to prevent any elections, is providing much-needed support to the government.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called a meeting Wednesday of the main opposition parties. With other opposition leaders standing behind him, he announced that, “We will resist any attempt to derail the democratic process.”
Separately, Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician who’s also pressed for a cleanup of politics, announced Wednesday that he was declining an invitation from Qadri to join his demonstration.
In a statement, Ashraf hailed the stand taken by the opposition.
“Today’s declaration by the opposition parties to uphold the constitution and preserve the democratic system was historic and bodes well for democracy and the future of the country. This is reflective of the political maturity of political forces of the country,” he said.
There was no sign of action Wednesday to implement the Supreme Court order to arrest Ashraf and other officials. A further hearing on the arrests is slated for Thursday.
Addressing the government, Qadri said in his speech Wednesday, “Today, power is in your hands. Tomorrow, it will be in the hands of the people. You have one or two days left.”
He said candidates for the next election should pass through a new, monthlong vetting procedure under a reconstituted Election Commission, which would probe their honesty while a “truly independent” caretaker government assumed power.
Late Wednesday, the government was forced to deny rumors that it was about to send in police and paramilitary forces to crush the protest. Police on Wednesday charged Qadri with civil disobedience, and it was possible he’d be arrested.
Asma Arbab, a member of parliament for the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, said, “This is not a protest. The capital has been taken hostage. They are inciting revolt.”
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.