A "million-man march" led by a moderate Islamic cleric Muhammad Tahirul Qadri began from Lahore Sunday and headed towards Islamabad, calling for a caretaker administration with a role for the judiciary and the military to ensure election reforms ahead of an upcoming vote.
A big crowd of supporters and workers of Qadri's non-governmental organization, Minhajul Quran International (MQI), gathered on Sunday afternoon in Lahore, carrying the national flag, according to The Express Tribune. The number of protesters, which stood at about 2,000 on Sunday, is expected to reach millions as the march reaches Islamabad on Monday, according to MQI.
Qadri is leading the protest after the government refused to comply with his demand for electoral reforms by Thursday. Qadri insists that the composition of the caretaker government should be decided with the input of the judiciary and the military, according to CNN.
Qadri, who returned to Pakistan recently after living in Canada for more than six years, rose to prominence in 2010 after he issued a fatwa on terrorism, saying Islam does not allow terrorism and violence.
The cleric, who was a lawmaker during General Pervez Musharraf's regime in the early 2000s, was recently described by India's CNN-IBN channel as the "International Peace Ambassador." He views an Islamic state as a Muslim-majority country which promotes and respects the rule of law, human rights and religious freedom, social welfare, women's rights and the rights of minorities.
However, the cleric's demand has surprised many, as Pakistan's military is accused of colluding with the nation's intelligence agency ISI in supporting Islamic militants, and has led coups in the past. Some believe Qadri is being backed by the military establishment. The only political party supporting Qadri's march, the Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a coalition partner in the ruling government, has also pulled its support.
The incumbent government and opposition have reassured the Pakistani people that elections will take place democratically and as scheduled.
Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik has announced Rs.5 million (roughly $52,000) for anyone who exposes the source through which Qadri has received "billions of rupees" to be able to organize a huge rally involving ad campaigns in the media. Malik also appealed to the cleric to postpone his plan, citing threats to his life from Pakistan Taliban.
Malik had earlier said he would not allow the rally to enter downtown Islamabad due to security concerns and to prevent disruption of business operations. But now he says the sit-in can be held at Jinnah Avenue adjacent to Islamabad Chamber of Commerce Tower, about 3 miles from Parliament House, as Qadri's supports are not willing to oblige.
"We are expecting one to two million people who will join the march," Shahid Mursaleen, spokesman for Qadri, told CNN. "We plan on removing the barricades put up by the government and we will remain in the city whether it is [for] two days or 30 days, until our demands are met."
"If you fail to come out, if you fail to strengthen my arms, then [future] generations will rue this day," Qadri tell the country's people in one of the television ads.
The current government completes its term in two months, when the date of the election will be decided.
Qadri's organization promotes "true Islamic teachings," according to its website, which claims to have about 280,000 members worldwide. It works to build madrassas across Pakistan to teach young children the Quran.