Islamabad: Thousands of people in Pakistan are out on the streets supporting pro-army Sufi cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri's call for a crackdown on government corruption and an indefinite delay in elections. Protestors are threatening to stay on streets till their demands are met.
Addressing the gathering, Qadri praised the military and judiciary of Pakistan. Qadri, however, denied links with the 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. The protests come even as Pakistan's Supreme Court has ordered the arrest of PM Raja Pervez Ashraf, reportedly causing fears of a coup among politicians. The Supreme Court gave the police 24 hours to arrest the Prime Minister and 15 others in the corruption case.
Tahir-ul-Qadri's supporters are threatening to stay on streets till their demands are met.
The 62-year-old Raja Pervez Ashraf has been accused of allegedly receiving bribes in the Rental Power Projects (RPPs) case as federal minister for water and power. He had became the Prime Minister after Yousuf Raza Gilani was forced to quit in June 2012.
Qadri had earlier threatened the government of a million-man march and demanded that the army plays a bigger role in forming a caretaker government. The numbers in the march, however, seemed limited to a few thousands. 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.
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.
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)