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What is Pakistan's 'million-march'?

Though only about 40,000 Pakistanis descended on Islamabad at the behest of a little known Sufi cleric from Canada, analysts see the march as a sign that the military is once again getting involved in politics.

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Supporters of Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri sit next to his poster as they wait for his arrival during a protest in Islamabad January 14. Thousands of Pakistanis converged on the capital on Monday to join a march planned by Sufi cleric Qadri calling for the indefinite delay of elections and a crackdown on government corruption and inefficiency.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

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Tens of thousands of protesters, including women and children, are gathering in Islamabad, less than a mile away from the Parliament building, as police stand by to stop them from entering the heavily-guarded area where the Pakistani president, the prime minister, and foreign embassies are situated.

The organized protest, which has been peaceful so far, is being dubbed the “million-march” by Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Canadian-Pakistani religious cleric, who runs a network of religious schools and charities around the world from his home in Canada

Dr. Qadri, relatively unknown until he returned to Pakistan last month after seven years, held a public meeting in Lahore.  There, he announced his intention to march in demand of "electoral reform," playing off the frustrations of the nation as it faces ongoing violence, corruption, and power outages ahead of a general election in the coming months.

The fact that Qadri says he wants the Pakistani Army to be involved in elections scheduled to be held in the coming months raises suspicion among political observers that he is backed by the powerful Pakistani military.

Analysts say that Qadri, who supported the Musharraf regime during its initial years, is the new poster child for the military, which wants to influence the electoral process.

“All elections in Pakistan have been overseen by the military except in 1977 – and even that government was later annulled by an Army dictator,” says Raza Rumi, director at an Islamabad-based think tank, the Jinnah Institute.

Mr. Rumi says that Qadri’s challenge to the government comes as Pakistan’s civilian government is set to see a prime minister make it the full five years for the first time and hold independent elections, which the military may perceive as a threat to its power. “The military has been sidelined from the equation; and if elections happen under this understanding, it will be a major shift in civil military imbalance.” The military wants to stop this from happening at any cost, he says.

Offices, businesses, and schools decided to close on Monday ahead of the massive number of people expected to show up in Islamabad. And it’s uncertain if they will open tomorrow. Analysts say it largely depends on whether the protesters’ keep their promise to continue their demonstrations until an interim government friendly with the military takes over in what observers are saying would give it the opportunity it needs to influence elections.

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The government in Islamabad has blocked roads and dispatched thousands of police officials in riot gear. It has also suspended cellular networks in the city in what appears to be an attempt at disrupting coordination between the protesters, despite official claims it is in an effort to protect Qadri’s march from Taliban, who it says have made threats on the group. The Taliban have not commented on this, but since Qadri issued a fatwa against the Taliban in 2010 and is considered to be a moderate Islamist, the likelihood of such a threat does exist.

If the military is indeed supporting him, it would reflect a shift in the Pakistani military’s strategy, say analysts, which has alternatively supported and shunned extremist groups. 

“Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri is a moderate cleric and his version of Islam challenges the extremist groups like the Taliban, but this does not mean he should be involved in the governance of the country – we are already suffering from the mixing of state with religion in the past because of the military,” stresses Rumi.

The march comes on the heels of four days of protests in Quetta, Balochistan over a major Shiite killing, which led to a state of emergency, late Sunday night.

“If Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri capitalizes on the crowd he has gathered today, which is a lot more than that in Quetta and refuses to leave Islamabad,” says Muneeb Farooq, a political talk-show host based in Lahore where the march started, “the situation may go out of the hands of the government and the demand for military intervention may be the only option out for it.”

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