ISLAMABAD: A Muslim cleric calling for the Pakistani government to resign said Thursday he had reached an agreement with the administration and would call a halt to the street protests in Islamabad that triggered a political crisis four days ago.
Mohammad Tahirul Qadri, who supported a military coup in 1999, has been calling for the army to play a role in the formation of a caretaker administration in the run-up to elections due in May.
“We have reached an agreement. After getting the prime minister’s signature, we will read it out in front of protesters,” Qadri told his supporters.
The agreement was reached after hours of negotiation inside a bulletproof container the religious leader was using at the demonstration site. Thousands of protesters, packed into the main avenue running through Islamabad, danced and cheered when Qadri announced from the container that he had hammered out an agreement.
The government agreed with the preacher to dissolve the National Assembly before its term ends in mid-March, giving 90 days until elections are held, according to a member of the negotiating team. That would give time to make sure politicians are eligible to stand for election, he said on condition of anonymity The government also agreed that the caretaker administration, which normally precedes elections, would be chosen in consultation with all parties, the negotiator added.
The deal may ease pressure on the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, which has come under fire for failing to tackle a range of problems, from a Taliban insurgency to a weak economy.
Pakistan’s government also got some relief when the chief of the state’s anti-corruption agency rejected a Supreme Court order to arrest Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf.
The court ordered Ashraf’s arrest over allegations of corruption in transactions involving power plant rentals when he was power minister, but Fasih Bokhari of the National Accountability Bureau told them that investigations of the allegations were incomplete.
The Supreme Court asked Bokhari to produce case records so that it could decide whether there was enough evidence to prosecute. The case was adjourned until Jan. 23, judges said.
Qadri’s appearance at the forefront of Pakistan’s political scene has fueled speculation that the army, with its long history of involvement in politics, has tacitly endorsed his campaign in order to pile more pressure on a government it sees as inept and corrupt. The military denies this.
Qadri has many followers due to his religious charity, which has offices in 80 countries, but he also appeals to middle- and lower-class Pakistanis disillusioned with dynastic politics.
No civilian government has ever completed its full term, but army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has vowed to keep the military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 65 years since independence, out of politics.
Yet fresh trouble may be brewing on another front for the government, which has been heavily criticized for its failure to strengthen the economy, fight militancy and eradicate poverty.
The Supreme Court has also admitted a petition filed against Sherry Rehman, Islamabad’s ambassador to the United States and a prominent member of the PPP, that accuses her of committing blasphemy.
Court documents show that the police have been directed to investigate the allegations. Rehman has faced death threats from militants for calling for reforms of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law, which has been condemned by human rights groups.