Islamabad: Sufi cleric Muhammad Tahir-Ul-Qadri has denied links with Pakistan army terming the allegations "baseless". Qadri said he has never met ISI or any Pakistan army chiefs. Thousands of Pakistanis shouting slogans like "we want change" thronged the streets of Islamabad on Tuesday in support of the Sufi cleric's anti-government demonstrations on Monday. Flag-waving citizens braved tear gas shells fired by the police and called for a crackdown on corruption, backing Qadri's call for an indefinite delay in elections.
Qadri had earlier threatened the government of a million-man march and demanded that the army play a bigger role in forming a caretaker government. The numbers in the march, however, seemed limited to a few thousands. Qadri has given an ultimatum to the Pakistan government to dissolve the national and provincial assemblies by 11 am on Tuesday. The cleric had earlier made a deal with the government to take out a peaceful march but surprised them midway asking people to break barricades and move towards parliament.
Qadri shot to fame since he returned to Pakistan from Canada weeks ago and demanded an interim government to root out corrupt and incompetent officials blamed for chronic energy shortages, stunted economic growth, flourishing crime and a failing campaign against the Taliban. Many of the protesters in Qadri's march were from middle class. They included police officers, teachers, civil servants, domestic workers and students. The complaints were numerous and familiar: not enough jobs, poor schools and understaffed hospitals, no security and rampant corruption.
Qadri says he wants the judiciary to bar corrupt politicians from running for office and that the army could play a role in the formation of a caretaker government to manage the run-up to elections this spring. His calls have divided Pakistanis, with some regarding him as a reformist champion, like 20-year-old Madrasa student Imtiaz Bibi from the Sindhi town of Sukkur.
However, there are also others who see Qadri as a potential stooge for the military, which has a history of coups and interfering in elections. They say his demands are unconstitutional and replacing an elected government with an unelected one will not help accountability.
Leading television anchors have questioned the source of his funds for a lavish media campaign and fleets of buses to transport supporters. Qadri says most of the money came from donations from those fed up with the current administration.
Meanwhile, with the influential cleric descending on Islamadad with swarms of his supporters, Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf - against whom the Pakistan Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered an arrest for corruption in power projects - lobbied with top political leaders, including PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif, for "upholding" the democratic system.
Hours after Qadri gathered in the heart of Islamabad with tens of thousands of people demanding sweeping electoral reforms, Ashraf telephoned Sharif, PML-Q chief Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, Awami National Party leader Asfandyar Wali Khan, Muttahida Qaumi Movement chief Altaf Hussain and Pakhtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party leader Mehmood Khan Achkzai to discuss the situation.
"During his conversation with the political leaders, there was a consensus on upholding the Constitution and the democratic system. The leaders noted that democracy has been achieved in the country after great sacrifices and struggle by the people of Pakistan and it will be defended at all costs," said a statement issued by the premier's office on Tuesday.
(With additional information from PTI)