ISLAMABAD – The firebrand cleric who led a massive street rally aimed at bringing down the Pakistani government called off the protests Thursday after negotiating a settlement with ruling coalition leaders.
The agreement between religious scholar Tahir-ul-Qadri and government officials ended a four-day crisis that threatened to upend the country’s political landscape.
It calls for the anti-government movement to have a say in appointing a caretaker prime minister to run the country leading up to elections this year. It does not, however, force the immediate resignation of President Asif Ali Zardari and his officials, an administration derided by critics as incompetent and rife with corruption.
Late Thursday, Qadri appeared before legions of supporters and announced that their resolve had paid off.
“I congratulate you! God has given you a victory!” Qadri told the crowd while flanked by members of Pakistan’s ruling coalition, some of them government ministers.
Zardari’s Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, who a day earlier had called protesters’ demands unrealistic and unconstitutional, embraced Qadri in front of the crowd and lauded him for leading a peaceful march.
Qadri was largely a forgotten figure in Pakistan’s political scene when he returned to his home country in December after spending six years in Canada and vowed to sweep away corrupt political leaders ahead of national elections slated for May.
On Sunday, he led a large caravan of buses and vans filled with demonstrators from the eastern city of Lahore to the capital, Islamabad, and a day later set up the sit-in demonstration about 500 yards from parliament.
For four days, the demonstrations riveted the nation and paralyzed the capital. Schools shut down, many businesses closed and avenues leading to Islamabad’s enclave of government buildings known as the “red zone” were blocked by cordons of freight containers, barbed wire and police in riot gear.
His movement received a boost Tuesday, when the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf on corruption charges stemming from a scandal during his days as water and power minister. On Thursday, however, Fasih Bokhari, the head of the National Accountability Bureau, the government’s anti-corruption agency, told the high court that he did not have enough evidence to warrant Ashraf’s arrest.
Leaders in Zardari’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party, as well as many analysts, suspected that the country’s powerful military, which has had an adversarial relationship with Zardari’s team, may have been quietly behind Qadri’s movement in hopes of commandeering the caretaker government that will be established in the two-month period before the election. Both Qadri and the military have denied that contention.