ISLAMABAD: Pakistani security forces fired shots in the air on Tuesday to quell supporters of a Tahirul qadri calling for the resignation of the beleaguered government while the interior minister Rehman Malik dismissed his demands as unconstitutional.
Sufi cleric Dr. Tahirul Qadri has brought tens of thousands of followers to the capital Islamabad to demand the resignation of top political leaders in the civilian government and electoral reforms to stamp out corruption.
“We will not accept Qadri’s pressure because his demands are unconstitutional,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told local television channels shortly after security forces fired in the air and used tear gas to try and control protesters backing the cleric. The rally began on Monday and many of the protesters had stayed on the streets overnight.
Live television coverage showed forces firing in the air – a serious escalation in attempts to disperse crowds – while supporters of the cleric hurled stones at them.
A spokesman for Qadri said his supporters had prevented government forces from arresting him. The cleric recently returned home from Canada to lead a call for reforms that have made him an instant hit among Pakistanis disillusioned with the state.
The spokesman said six supporters of the cleric were wounded.
Qadri, who says elections scheduled for this spring should be delayed indefinitely until Pakistan’s endemic corruption is rooted out, may not pose any immediate threat to the U.S.-backed civilian government, but his protest is the latest in a series of challenges for the administration.
Qadri’s campaign has divided Pakistanis. Some hold him up as a champion of reform, others see him as a possible stooge of the military, which has a history of coups and interfering in elections.
But he has suddenly emerged as a wildcard in the run-up to elections while the government is under fire for failing to tackle the Taliban insurgency, ease crippling power cuts and eradicate widespread poverty.
Qadri has fired up mostly middle and lower class Pakistanis who have gathered in central Islamabad’s business district near parliament, and highlighted growing frustrations with the ruling Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP).
His 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.
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.
So Pakistan’s current civilian leaders will be reluctant to step down even if Qadri gathers more momentum.