| LAHORE, Pakistan
LAHORE, Pakistan Jan 13 A month ago, Muhammad
Tahirul Qadri was living quietly in Canada, immersed in the
affairs of his Islamic charity and seemingly far removed from
the pre-election power games shaping the fate of politicians in
his native Pakistan.
In the past three weeks, he has returned home to lead a call
for electoral reforms that has earned him instant celebrity,
sent a stab of anxiety through the ruling class and raised fears
of trouble at a planned rally in Islamabad on Monday.
"Our agenda is just democratic electoral reforms," Qadri
told Reuters in the eastern city of Lahore, the headquarters of
his Minhaj-ul-Quran religious foundation. "We don't want the
law-breakers to become our lawmakers."
Qadri's platform hinges on a demand that the judiciary bars
corrupt politicians from running for office and that the army
plays a possible role in the formation of a caretaker government
which is due to manage the run-up to elections this spring.
But his sudden ascent has prompted speculation that the
military, which ruled Pakistan for decades, may be using him as
a proxy to delay the polls and install a compliant interim
administration to serve at the generals' pleasure.
Television channels broadcast images of several thousand
supporters gathering outside Qadri's walled complex on Sunday as
they prepared to board a convoy of buses for Islamabad.
The cleric's overnight transformation from a
scholar-philanthropist into a media sensation commanding huge
crowds has thrust a new wild card into the fraught run-up to the
The elections, if they proceed on time, could cement
Pakistan's transition from military rule by marking the first
time a civilian-led government has completed a five-year term
and handed over power at the ballot box.
Western allies believe a smooth vote will bolster democracy
in a nuclear-armed country beset by challenges from a Taliban
insurgency to a rivalry with India and an economy struggling to
employ a youthful population of 180 million.
That Qadri should have chosen such a delicate moment to
launch his protests - which take place against a backdrop of a
wave of bombings last week that killed more than 100 people -
have led many to question his timing and motives.
Suspicions that Qadri may be acting at the behest of
generals has been sharpened by his praise for the army's fight
against the Taliban and his insistence that the military might
play a useful consultative role in the formation of a caretaker
government which will oversee the pre-election period.
Qadri, who champions religious tolerance and once issued a
fatwa against the Taliban, denies any relationship with the army
and stressed his march would be peaceful. The military issued a
statement this month denying speculation it was backing Qadri.
"I am one of the biggest staunch believers and ambassadors
and propagators of democracy in the whole world," Qadri said. "I
have no link with any military institution."
Memories linger, however, of Qadri's prominent role in
supporting former army chief and president Pervez Musharraf
after he seized power in a coup in 1999. Qadri served in the
national assembly under Musharraf before moving to Canada in
2006, apparently disillusioned by his former ally.
SHOWDOWN WITH DOMINANT PARTIES
Qadri has sought to tap a deep well of contempt for the
government of President Asif Ali Zardari, dismissing Pakistan's
evolving democracy as a sham that perpetuates the rule of
A lavishly-funded publicity blitz has seen him figure
regularly in newspapers and television shows, where he is
invariably portrayed wearing a crown-like Islamic scholar's hat
and holding his arm aloft in a victory salute.
Qadri's core demand is that the government implement a set
of electoral reforms ahead of the polls - raising the prospect
of protracted wrangling that could potentially delay the vote,
currently projected to take place as early as April.
Among the measures Qadri is demanding is that the judiciary
rigorously enforce an existing provision in the constitution
that bars politicians suspected of corruption from running for
office - a rule which he says would bar many lawmakers.
Zardari's ruling PPP and its main rival, the PML-N, are
united in the belief that the polls should go ahead on schedule
and seem unlikely to embrace Qadri's agenda, which some experts
say jars with provisions in Pakistan's constitution.
Qadri exploited the reach of his Islamic foundation, which
is active across Pakistan and in dozens of countries, by
mobilising some 200,000 followers in Lahore on Dec. 23, but he
has yet to win solid support beyond his religious base.
His limits were exposed last week when the MQM, a secular
party which dominates the commercial capital Karachi, said it
had pulled out of initial plans to back his protest in
Not averse to a touch of theatre, Qadri told Reuters he had
summoned his children to his home in Lahore to hand them his
will in case his opponents attempted to bomb the rally.
"I have told my family, my children and all workers, if they
kill me, don't go for revenge," Qadri said. "Almighty Allah will
take revenge on them."
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)