ISLAMABAD: Tahirul Qadri urged Pakistani politicians yesterday to join tens of thousands taking part in the largest protest in Islamabad for years, ratcheting up the pressure on the government to step down.
In a three-and-a-half hour speech delivered from behind bulletproof glass, Tahirul Qadri urged his followers to remain steadfast, despite the winter cold, in their demands for key reforms and clean elections.
He welcomed a Supreme Court order to arrest the prime minister over alleged corruption but gave no indication how long he would prolong the protest outside Parliament, which has brought the city’s main commercial avenue to a standstill.
“Keep sitting, don’t move. Be steadfast. Your destiny is closer. There will soon be a decision in your favor,” Qadri shouted in a third fiery speech since reaching Islamabad after a 38-hour “march” from the eastern city of Lahore.
“It is now or never.”
Security officials estimated the crowd numbered at least 25,000, which would make it the largest political protest in the capital since the government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was elected in 2008.
The rally comes as Pakistan struggles with a weak economy, a bloody Taleban insurgency and rising sectarian violence.
A general election is due to be held by mid-May, but Qadri wants Parliament dissolved now and a caretaker government set up in consultation with the military and the judiciary, to implement key reforms first.
But his sudden — and apparently well-financed — emergence after years in Canada has been criticized as a ploy by the establishment, particularly the armed forces, to delay the elections and sow political chaos.
If it goes ahead as scheduled, the ballot will mark the first democratic transfer of power between two elected civilian governments in the history of Pakistan, where the military have staged three coups and ruled for decades.
Qadri denies wanting to delay the poll, but is calling for a new, independent election commission and screening to ban corrupt candidates.
The cleric, who as a dual Canadian-Pakistani national is not eligible for office, called on opposition politician Imran Khan and other parties to join him.
“I invite Imran Khan to come and join us. He also wants change... I also invite other parties, those who are not siding us,” he said.
Khan, a former cricketer who leads the Pakistan Movement for Justice party but has no seat in Parliament, has called on President Asif Ali Zardari to resign and for the government to set a date for elections.