Muhammad Tahirul Qadri's overnight transformation from a scholar-philanthropist into a media sensation commanding huge crowds has thrust a new wild card into the fraught run-up to the polls.
Pakistani cleric: catalyst for change or military stooge?
LAHORE, Pakistan // A month ago, Muhammad Tahirul Qadri was living quietly in Canada, immersed in the affairs of his Islamic charity and seemingly far removed from the pre-election power games shaping the fate of politicians in his native Pakistan.
In the past three weeks, he has returned home to lead a call for electoral reforms that has earned him instant celebrity, sent a stab of anxiety through the ruling class and raised fears of trouble at a planned rally today in Islamabad.
"Our agenda is just democratic electoral reforms," Mr Qadri said in the eastern city of Lahore, the headquarters of his Minhaj-ul-Quran religious foundation. "We don't want the law-breakers to become our lawmakers."
Mr Qadri's platform hinges on a demand that the judiciary bars corrupt politicians from running for office and that the army plays a possible role in the formation of a caretaker government which is due to manage the run-up to elections this spring.
But his sudden ascent has prompted speculation that the military, which ruled Pakistan for decades, may be using him as a proxy to delay the polls and install a compliant interim administration to serve at the generals' pleasure.
Television channels broadcast images of several thousand supporters gathering outside Mr Qadri's walled complex yesterday as they prepared to board a convoy of buses for Islamabad.
The cleric's overnight transformation from a scholar-philanthropist into a media sensation commanding huge crowds has thrust a new wild card into the fraught run-up to the polls.
The elections, if they proceed on time, could cement Pakistan's transition from military rule by marking the first time a civilian-led government has completed a five-year term and handed over power at the ballot box.
Western allies believe a smooth vote will bolster democracy in a nuclear-armed country beset by challenges from a Taliban insurgency to a rivalry with India and an economy struggling to employ a youthful population of 180 million.
That Mr Qadri should have chosen such a delicate moment to launch his protests - which take place against a backdrop of a wave of bombings last week that killed more than 100 people - have led many to question his timing and motives.
Suspicions that Mr Qadri may be acting at the behest of generals has been sharpened by his praise for the army's fight against the Taliban and his insistence that the military might play a useful consultative role in the formation of a caretaker government which will oversee the pre-election period.
Mr Qadri, who champions religious tolerance and once issued a fatwa against the Taliban, denies any relationship with the army and stressed his march would be peaceful. The military issued a statement this month denying speculation it was backing Mr Qadri.
Memories linger, however, of Mr Qadri's prominent role in supporting former army chief and president Pervez Musharraf after he seized power in a coup in 1999. Mr Qadri served in the national assembly under Mr Musharraf before moving to Canada in 2006, apparently disillusioned by his former ally.
Mr Qadri has sought to tap a deep well of contempt for the government of president Asif Ali Zardari, dismissing Pakistan's evolving democracy as a sham that perpetuates the rule of self-serving dynasties.