Cleric Tahirul Qadri leads thousands of protesters towards Islamabad
Thousands of Pakistanis crammed into hundreds of vehicles streamed towards Islamabad yesterday in a protest march led by a Pakistani-Canadian cleric demanding electoral reform.
Tahirul Qadri claimed one million people were taking part in the rally but some witnesses put the number at 20,000 to 30,000, far short of the 100,000 he is estimated to have drawn at an initial rally in Lahore on December 23.
Qadri, who returned from Canada only last month, has accused the government of being corrupt and incompetent. He is demanding Pakistan enact reforms before the general elections scheduled to be held by mid-May. Some have accused him of being a proxy for elements in the military.
He wants an independent caretaker government to be set up in consultation with the military and judiciary when parliament disbands in mid-March.
"This march will end the political dictatorship in our country," Qadri, who also has Canadian citizenship, said on Sunday before setting off from his organisation's offices in Lahore for the 300km journey. They are expected to reach the capital today.
Mainstream political parties fear that Qadri's demand for the military to have a say in the caretaker government set-up, and his insistence on reforms, could prolong the interim administration and delay elections.
Police said thousands of officers were deployed along the route of the march, to protect marchers from terrorist attacks.
Qadri gave his supporters a pep talk at a televised news conference in Kharian, 140km south of Islamabad, the capital.
"Come out of your homes to save Pakistan, save the future of your children, save your religion," he said.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg