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A new contender

December 25, 2012

ALL rallies, even mammoth ones, are not equal. Slightly over a year since the PTI rally in Lahore shook the country’s political foundations, another would-be saviour arrived in the Punjab capital to preach a slightly different kind of politics. The turnout on Sunday for Tahir ul Qadri, chief of the Tehrik-i-Minhajul Quran, was massive, and expected. As head of a populist, Barelvi group, Mr Qadri commands support from a group of dedicated followers cultivated over the decades through an educational and preaching network that’s especially strong in Punjab but that has also spread its roots to the other provinces. Despite being a political lightweight, the charismatic Mr Qadri has adroitly meshed conservative Islam with modernist values to craft a message that appeals to a far wider cross-section of people than that of the PTI. Which is why, scanning the crowd at Manto Park on Sunday, both rural and urban, rich and poor, highly educated and less literate persons could be seen in large numbers.

Yet, support for a religious leader is one thing; turning out voters quite another. This is where Mr Qadri’s message becomes problematic. Mr Qadri has demanded that a clean, technocratic, patriotic and efficient caretaker set-up to fix all that ails Pakistan be put in place — or else his followers would descend on Islamabad and pressurise the government until his demands are met. Within that demand lies a tacit admission perhaps that the TMQ does not have the electoral support to convert his political agenda into an electoral victory that could lead to reform from within the system.

Mr Qadri’s message will strike many who have followed the trajectory of democracy in Pakistan as old and failed. But the fact that it comes so close to the first civilian-led transition in decades will have raised some alarm bells. For all its failings, the political class, that has disillusioned so many, has the one thing that other would-be saviours do not: genuine political legitimacy. It may be flawed, it may be problematic, but support for the mainstream political parties represents the democratic will of the people. It is this legitimacy, which Mr Qadri and others like him do not appear to recognise or accept, that needs to be protected by the electorate when attempts are made to snatch it away. The country is close to a general election that will be intensely competitive and which represents a genuine opportunity to move the democratic project forward. That is the fundamental change the country needs, no matter what the personal ambition of leaders like Mr Qadri may suggest.