ISLAMABAD (AP) — Thousands of supporters of a fiery cleric who has been calling for election reforms were descending Monday on the Pakistani capital, where authorities have put up barricades and sent riot police into the streets in preparation.
The entry of Tahir-ul-Qadri, a mysterious cleric who just recently returned from Canada, into the Pakistani political scene has galvanized supporters looking for political reforms but worried detractors who fear he'll derail upcoming elections.
Qadri is leading a march of thousands of supporters to Islamabad to pressure the government to accede to his demands.
About 15,000 of his supporters left the eastern city of Lahore, where the headquarters of Qadri's Minhaj-ul-Quran organization are located. They are expected to arrive in Islamabad later on Monday, as more supporters join the rally along the way.
Thousands of police have been deployed in the Pakistani capital, and officers in riot gear are manning the city's main roads and streets.
Authorities have used shipping containers to block off the part of the city where most government offices and embassies are located.
Qadri returned to Pakistan in December after living for years in Canada, where he's also a citizen.
His calls for reforms ahead of elections this spring have galvanized many Pakistanis disenchanted after five years of a political system they say is deeply corrupt. The cleric's vaguely-worded demands include vetting of political candidates to make sure they're honest and taking steps to even out the political playing field so more people can participate in the political process.
That type of rhetoric has invigorated many Pakistanis who are angry that the last five years of the current administration have brought little but electricity blackouts, unemployment and terror attacks.
But some of Qadri's comments have worried observers who fear the cleric is a front for the military to derail the democratic process just as it prepares for a historic transfer of power from one civilian government to another.
He's called for a role in the military in picking of the caretaker government. Under Pakistan's constitution, once the current government names an election date, a caretaker government takes over as a way to ensure impartiality in the election process, usually for a period of 60 to 90 days.
Qadri has said he does not want to delay the elections but if the caretaker government needs more than 90 days to ensure reforms, then that's not against the constitution.
Those comments, as well as questions about where his funding is coming from, have sparked fears that Qadri is really trying to derail the upcoming vote for the Pakistani military, which is believed to dislike both the main political parties vying for power. Qadri has denied any such involvement.