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Shaking Up Pakistani Politics: A Million Man March on the Grand Trunk Road

Dr. Tahirul Qadri, a Sufi preacher turned rabble-rouser, has announced a plan to march with millions of supporters from Karachi to Islamabad next week in support of a broad program of political reform. Qadri first leaped onto the national political stage at an enormous rally in Lahore late last month, where he demanded reforms before this year’s general elections. “Change the system!” he declared, “save the state, not politics.” Pakistan’s current civilian government ends its five-year term in March, the first time in the country’s history that a civilian government will peacefully dissolve. If everything proceeds according to the constitution, an interim government will govern through the summer and coordinate national voting in the fall.

Qadri has not yet attracted much notice from the Western press, but he is playing out a well-worn script in Pakistani politics: periodically, someone comes to the fore by shrewdly capitalizing on popular disgust with political corruption and military mismanagement, amasses vast popular support, but eventually and inevitably fails to change much.

Imran Khan, the cricket star turned politician, fits this pattern, but Khan’s star is fading. Analysts see Qadri gathering support from the same corners of Pakistani society as Khan did not so long ago.

The problem with Qadri and Khan and others like them is that they are doomed to fail. Even if Qadri’s massive march proceeds next week as planned, his demands for reform are unlikely to have much effect before the upcoming elections. His chances of uprooting the culture of corruption at the top of Pakistan’s civilian politics are slim. And he will get only limited support from the military, which is content to pull strings from the shadows while civilian politicians take the heat for the government’s many failures and shortcomings.

There is a genuine, growing, albeit still disorganized yearning among Pakistanis for an accountable, democratically elected government and some social stability. These things can’t happen overnight, but perhaps one day they’ll get there.

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