Thousands of protesters, led by a Canada-based Pakistani cleric, have begun to march toward the capital Islamabad from the city of Lahore to demand key reforms ahead of elections.
Hundreds of cars, buses and trucks carrying about 7,000 people left the eastern-most city of Lahore on Sunday, expected to grow in number as they pass through towns and villages en route to Islamabad, accompanied by a heavy security presence.
Activists carried the green and white national flag of Pakistan and a mock coffin to symbolise the country’s “redundant system”.
Tahirul Qadri, an Islamic scholar and preacher who returned to Pakistan in December after years in Canada, has said he will lead a million people on a “peaceful revolution”.
He has accused the government of being corrupt and incompetent, and argued that Pakistan must enact “meaningful” electoral reforms before general elections, scheduled to be held within eight weeks after parliament disbands in mid-March.
“This is a march for protection of human rights, elimination of poverty, supremacy of constitution, rule of law and end of corruption,” Qadri said.
The cleric called for what he says is a “democracy march”, but the government says the cleric, is part of a “conspiracy” designed to postpone elections and grab power.
The authorities have sealed off the main approaches to Islamabad and warned that the Taliban could attack the march, leading to the closure of schools, businesses and embassies on Monday when the rally is expected to arrive.
Police said 10,000 officers had been deployed along the route of the march for the security of the protesters and that an elite commando squad would guard Qadri.
“No restrictions are placed on the protest, but we have asked the organisers to check all buses and participants before leaving,” police official Sohail Ahmed Sukhera told the AFP news agency.
Qadri wants an independent caretaker government set up in consultation with the military, judiciary and not just political parties when parliament disbands in mid-March and before polls due by mid-May.
If polls are held on time, it will mark the first time that a democratically elected civilian government hands over to another democratically elected civilian government in Pakistan, which has seen four military dictators.
Ahmed Mehboob, the head of a think tank that promotes democracy, speaking to Al Jazeera from Lahore said that Qadri is simply “riding the crest of frustration” in the country to return to politics.
He said Qadri is demanding an open system and more reforms, but that his demands were very general and not clear.
Pakistan suffers from crushing problems: a flagging economy, a Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked insurgency, record attacks on Shia Muslims and an energy crisis.
Elsewhere in southwestern Pakistan, people in the city of Quetta continued protests for a third day on Sunday, blocking a main road with dozens of coffins of relatives killed in explosions.
About 90 coffins blocked the road near a place of Shia worship in Quetta, the capital of southwestern Balochistan
province on Saturday.
Shias have protested to condemn security lapses they say were responsible for Thursday’s twin bombings of a billiards
hall that killed scores of people.
“Until the government fulfills our demands, we shall sit in protest,” said protester Amina Ali.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies