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Last updated: January 17, 2013 5:10 pm
Pakistan’s ruling coalition reached an agreement on Thursday with Tahirul Qadri, a Muslim cleric who led thousands of anti-corruption protesters on to the streets of the capital, as both sides tried to defuse the latest political crisis and end four days of demonstrations.
Mr Qadri, a moderate Sufi leader and politician recently returned from Canada, wrested some concessions from the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari, including assurances that rules banning criminals from parliament would be enforced and a promise to dissolve parliament by the end of its five-year term.
“We now have outlines of an agreement which is being taken to prime minister [Raja Pervez Ashraf] to be signed,” Mr Qadri told his followers after hours of negotiation. Mr Ashraf and Mr Qadri later signed a five-point declaration on election procedures and the reform of electoral practices.
Tens of thousands of Pakistanis frustrated by power cuts, economic mismanagement, relentless corruption and the inability of the government to curb terrorism by Islamist extremists have thrown their support behind Mr Qadri.
But he has so far failed to recreate Cairo’s Tahrir Square uprising in Islamabad or mobilise the million-strong march on the capital he had promised. His sudden and well-financed campaign for political reform, his pro-military comments and his record of having initially supported the 1999 military coup d’état also aroused suspicion that he was backed by the security forces.
Mr Zardari’s Pakistan People’s party and other opposition parties accused him of undermining democracy just as the government was preparing to step down ahead of a general election due by the first week of May.
That would be the first time in the country’s 66-year history – much of its spent under military rule – that one elected administration finishes its full term and makes way for another.
The resilience of Mr Qadri’s supporters nevertheless surprised some observers. “These people have stuck it out in a difficult situation. The government did not expect this protest to last for so long,” said one Pakistani intelligence officer.
Tahira Malik, a university student among the protesters, said: “We will not move till our imam [leader] tells us to do so. We have come to Islamabad for a decisive battle.”
In response to Mr Qadri’s call for a high-powered government delegation to meet and discuss his demands, Mr Ashraf, the prime minister, ordered some of his cabinet ministers to approach the cleric. “There is a sense of great urgency felt in the cabinet. This is a crisis which everyone wants to resolve,” said one minister.
Mr Ashraf meanwhile appeared to win some breathing space over an order for his arrest made by the Supreme Court in a corruption case. Fasih Bokhari, head of the National Accountability Bureau, said investigations into Mr Ashraf were still incomplete, and the court told the bureau to produce the relevant records by January 23.
In a fresh outbreak of violence, protesters torched vehicles in parts of Pakistan’s commercial capital, Karachi on Thursday after the assassination of a local politician. Manzar Imam, a legislator from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Sindh province, was assassinated by four gunmen riding motorcycles.
Mr Imam’s killing in Pakistan’s largest city appeared to have been carried out by Taliban militants, a Karachi intelligence officer said.
“We knew for some time that Taliban were seeking to destabilise Karachi. The tactics used in this killing are in keeping with methods used by the Taliban,” he said.
Government officials said Muttahida Qaumi Movement activists would probably stage further protests on Friday, when Mr Imam is due to be buried. Nasreen Jalil, a senior politician from the movement said that without immediate steps to tackle growing lawlessness in Karachi, “the city is in danger of becoming very unstable”.
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