Pakistan Cleric Leads March to Islamabad for Political Change

A Muslim religious scholar is leading thousands of supporters on a march to Pakistan’s capital to demand political change before the country holds a vote that will represent an electoral milestone.

Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, 61, who heads an Islamic group with 90 branches worldwide, says he wants the government to appoint a neutral electoral commission and a caretaker administration before a ballot is held by mid-year. He has vowed to hold a sit-in after reaching Islamabad today, creating the “biggest Tahrir Square,” a reference to the Cairo area that was the center of Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011.

“This march will end the political dictatorship in our country,” Qadri, who also has Canadian citizenship, said before setting off yesterday from his organization’s offices in the eastern city of Lahore for the 300-kilometer (186-mile) trek. “This peaceful and democratic struggle will continue until we get rid of this corrupt and illegal regime.”

Qadri’s rise to prominence comes as President Asif Ali Zardari’s government is set to become the first democratically elected administration to complete its five-year term and transfer power through a ballot, in a country ruled for half its history by the military. The cleric’s message may be aimed at Pakistanis disillusioned by established political parties that they blame for corruption and a faltering economy.

‘Pure Spoiler’

“He’s a pure spoiler,” Muhammad Waseem, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, said Jan. 7, describing Qadri’s prediction of assembling “a million-man march” as inflated. “He doesn’t have a defined political constituency but he commands a large number of religiously motivated followers who can create instability at this crucial moment.”

The cleric, who said he wants the government to agree to a role for the army and top judiciary in forming an interim administration, expressed anger over federal and provincial governments’ efforts to prevent his followers from reaching the starting point of the march in Lahore.

Local television channels estimated that 8,000 to 10,000 followers were accompanying Qadri when he left the headquarters of his group, Pakistan Awami Tehreek, or the Pakistan People’s Movement. Qadri addressed one of the biggest rallies in Pakistan’s recent history Dec. 23, gathering as many as 200,000 supporters in Lahore, according to local media estimates.

Denies Allegations

Qadri’s challenge has given new life to two of Pakistan’s most persistent political conspiracy theories: that he’s working for a foreign power or on behalf of the military. Army spokesman Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa denied any such link, the Dawn newspaper reported Jan. 2. Bajwa didn’t reply to questions in a telephone call and a text message.

In a news conference two days ago, Qadri reiterated his denial of the allegations and said his financial support comes only from donations from his followers. His representatives didn’t immediately respond to requests to interview him.

“He knows that there is a lot of political alienation in Pakistan because of poor governance and people are vulnerable to emotional appeals,” said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an independent political and military analyst in Lahore, in an interview Jan. 3. “He’s capitalizing on the feeling that there is no good in elections without reforming the system first. He’s acting like a Messiah who will fix everything.”

Slowing Economy

The Washington-based International Monetary Fund said Nov. 29 that Pakistan’s economic growth will slow to about 3.25 percent, one of the lowest expansions in a decade, in the fiscal year through June 2013, from 3.7 percent.

Under existing law, Zardari’s government will leave office by the end of March, and a caretaker administration approved by a majority of parties represented in parliament will oversee elections within three months.

Fourteen percent of Pakistanis viewed Zardari favorably in a Pew Research Center survey in June, down from 64 percent in 2008. About 87 percent are dissatisfied with the country’s direction, viewing the economy, crime and corruption as the biggest problems, it said. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minor 4.2 percentage points.

Qadri formed his group in 1989 and was elected a member of parliament under army rule in 2002. It’s his role as the head of a Sufi Muslim-dominated spiritual foundation, the Minhaj-ul-Quran, that provides his popular support and funding, he has said. The body, which according to its website promotes inter-faith tolerance, has offices in countries including the U.S., the U.K. and Canada.

Stocks Fell

Pakistan’s stocks fell the most in more than 14 months on Jan. 2 after the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a party in southern Sindh province and partner in the federal coalition government, asked its members to join Qadri’s march. The party withdrew the call on Jan. 11. Former cricket star and opposition politician Imran Khan has backed Qadri’s agenda while declining to march.

“We will not allow this Canadian national to derail the system,” Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister whose party rules the country’s largest province of Punjab from Lahore, told reporters last week. “This guy is here to sabotage elections and impose a foreign agenda on us.”

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