LAHORE, Pakistan - To his supporters, Tahir-ul-Qadri is a saviour of Pakistan's fragile democracy who will right the country ahead of elections expected to take place this spring. To his detractors, he is a shady religious figure bent on derailing the vote, possibly at the behest of the country's powerful military.
After years in Canada, Qadri returned to Pakistan last month and gave a speech demanding that sweeping election reforms be implemented before the vote. His appearance in Lahore drew tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of supporters into the streets. Since then, Pakistani media and political figures have closely followed his every word, and Qadri plans to lead his followers in a march on the capital next Monday.
Qadri, 61, is a charismatic Sunni Muslim cleric with a large following that extends outside Pakistan. He has a reputation for speaking out against terrorism and promoting his message through hundreds of books, an online television channel and videos.
Now, Qadri's focus is on Pakistan's election laws. He is suggesting vaguely worded changes, such as making sure candidates are honest as well as ending exploitation and income disparities so that poor people are free to vote for whomever they want.
Under Pakistan's constitution, a caretaker government takes over for 60 to 90 days before an election and presides over the vote in a show of impartiality.
Qadri says he does not want to delay the election and that the caretaker government could implement his proposed reforms within days. But he has also said that if it takes longer than 90 days, then it's perfectly fine — and constitutional — for the caretaker government to stay on.
That has alarmed critics who fear that a caretaker government could last months and even years. In a country with a history of military coups, some Pakistanis fear that Qadri is doing the bidding of the military in an effort to delay elections indefinitely.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Qadri denied any connection to the military and said his aim is to destroy the current political system in which he contends a few powerful families control the political process. It is a system that he says is deeply corrupt and a democracy in name only.
"People were waiting for someone to raise a voice for true democracy," he said. "They (the current government) have almost finished their tenure of five years. They have delivered nothing to the people of Pakistan except terrorism, extremism, worsening law and order situation, hunger, poverty, lack of education, lack of health facilities, and unemployment."
Qadri spoke from his residence near the headquarters of Minhaj-ul-Qur’an, a religious and social welfare organization that he founded. The group says it has a presence in 90 countries, runs hundreds of schools in Pakistan along with an ambulance service in Lahore, and provides aid to people affected by recent flooding.
A one-time member of parliament, Qadri quit in 2004 over what he says was disgust with the ruling system and moved to Canada in 2006. Since then he spent most of his time in Canada with occasional trips to Pakistan or other countries to promote his agenda.
He earned praise in the West when he came out with a 600-page fatwa in 2010 condemning terrorism, using the same language in the Qur’an and Islam that militants often use to justify their actions. He's spoken at such institutions as Georgetown University and the United States Institute for Peace, and held rallies in Britain against extremism.
Supporters say the fatwa led to death threats, and his security precautions are obvious at his events. A man with a Kalashnikov rifle watched over as he spoke this week to a crowd of lawyers supporting next week's march, and people entering his home and offices are patted down for weapons.
But it is his anti-government message that has drawn the most support in Pakistan. Many people are frustrated with a political system they believe is corrupt and dominated by two political parties: the Pakistan People's Party, which controls the government, and the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
Both are political dynasties run by powerful families: the PPP is controlled by the Bhutto family and run by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain politician Benazir Bhutto. The PML-N is the party of the Sharifs, a powerful family from the largest province, Punjab.
After five years of democracy, Pakistanis are grappling with widespread power outages that leave them freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer, frequent terror attacks and rampant corruption. For many, Qadri represents hope. "We really feel that he can bring change to the electoral system," said Aqeel Ahmed Rana, who owns a textile business in Lahore.
But other Pakistanis question whether he's a front for Pakistan's powerful military. The military in the past has also suggested that free and fair elections can be held only after the system is cleaned up, said Raza Rumi, director of the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute.
"His clear stance is that elections should be delayed, that we should cleanse the electoral system and then go for elections. This is also the military line," Rumi said. "The best way to clean up is through the democratic process itself. Let the people clean up."
The Pakistani military is widely believed to dislike both the PPP and the PML-N and want a more pliable government that would protect its interests, though it has denied playing any role in Qadri's campaign.
In a country where conspiracy theories abound, there are also rumours the U.S. and Britain are backing him, something both their embassies have denied.
Many detractors ask why he's returned now, just when Pakistan is poised to have an all-important transition from one civilian government to another. Why did he not come back in 2008 when the civilian government was first elected and then work from within the country for reforms?
Qadri is also facing questions about his character. Videos have surfaced on the Internet of Qadri appearing to take credit for the country's controversial blasphemy law, which calls for death in some cases, but distancing himself from it when speaking to an international audience. In another video making the rounds, he describes to his ardent followers how Islam's Prophet Muhammad came to him in a dream.
Tariq Azeem, of the PML-N, called Qadri a "slightly dubious character" who says one thing when speaking to a domestic audience and another when speaking to foreigners. He questioned why Qadri only recently became involved in politics and where the money is coming from to finance his march and recent appearances.
"Suddenly he comes up with all these demands," he said.
Qadri denied to the AP that he wants to delay the elections or that he's a front for anyone's agenda. He said many of his comments have been taken out of context and distributed on social media in an attempt to discredit him.
On Thursday, Pakistan's Minister of Interior Rehman Malik issued a strongly worded statement that Qadri would not be allowed to rally in Islamabad, warning that the Taliban might attack the event. He described Qadri's use of "agitation" as "illegal and unconstitutional." Large shipping containers have already been set up to block protesters from getting close to government buildings.
Qadri calls this type of language a ploy by the government to scare off his supporters. But he said he and his followers would show up, optimistically predicting a turnout of 4 million people.
"I hope when there is an ocean of people and they are peaceful and they are just and honest in their demands and they are standing up for democratic rights, I hope almighty God will help them," he said.
On the Internet: http://www.minhaj.org/english/index.html
Associated Press writers Zaheer Babar in Lahore, and Asif Shahzad and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.