Firebrand cleric raises fear of "soft coup" in Pakistan
By Matthew Green and Mehreen Zahra-Malik
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - To Pakistan's ruling party, a firebrand cleric camped outside parliament with thousands of protesters is looking more and more like the harbinger of their worst fear: a plan by the military to engineer a "soft coup".
In their eyes, Muhammad Tahirul Qadri seems like the perfect candidate for such a mission. A practiced orator who has electrified crowds with his anti-corruption rhetoric, the doctor of Islamic law leapt into action to back the last power grab by the army in 1999.
The aim this time, some politicians suspect, is to use Qadri to bring down the current administration and provide a pretext for the army to hand pick a caretaker cabinet.
"What we are seeing is dangerous and evidence that unconstitutional third forces are up to their tricks again," said Mahmood Khan Achakzai, a politician who has been a frequent critic of the army's record of interfering in politics.
The military has denied any link to Qadri, and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has built up a reputation for standing more aloof from politics than predecessors who have not hesitated to dismiss civilian governments. Pakistan has been ruled by the military for more than half of its 65 years as an independent nation.
Critics note, furthermore, that the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which has a long record of confrontation with the military, has often been quick to portray itself as a victim of bullying by the military to distract attention from its shortcomings.
But the timing of Qadri's return from six years of living in Canada, just a few months before elections are due, and his role in supporting a 1999 coup by former army chief Pervez Musharraf have nonetheless rung alarm bells.
Qadri, who led a convoy of buses carrying thousands of protesters into the capital, Islamabad, on Monday, has repeatedly demanded that the army should have a say in the formation of an interim administration that is due to oversee the run-up to elections in May. Continued...