Islamabad: Thousands of protesters led by Canada-returned cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, rallied in Islamabad for the third day in a row today, giving the government time till tonight to quit and dissolve the national and provincial assemblies to pave the way for electoral reforms.
Qadri, who marched into Islamabad with his supporters on Monday and began a protest near parliament, outlined four demands during his speech this afternoon, including electoral reforms according to the Constitution before polls and reconstitution of the Election Commission.
He said there should be no secret compromise between the ruling Pakistan People's Party and main opposition PML-N on forming a caretaker government to oversee the next general election and the immediate dissolution of the national and provincial assemblies.
"The government should decide by tonight (on these demands)," said Qadri, the head of the Tehrik Minhaj-ul-Quran who returned to Pakistan last month after living in Canada for the past seven years.
"This so-called democratic government will end today or tomorrow, God willing...Now we can't accept corruption anymore in this country. We want true democracy," he said.
In a rambling three-hour speech loaded with religious imagery, Qadri repeatedly attacked politicians of both the ruling and opposition parties.
At one stage, he urged his supporters to be ready to disrobe corrupt leaders and expose their "tattoos".
He incited officials to defy the government, saying it would be removed in a day or two.
Qadri's protest received a shot in arm yesterday, when the Supreme Court issued an order to arrest Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf over graft charges linked to power projects just as the cleric was making a fiery speech against "corrupt and incompetent" politicians.
During his speech today, Qadri said the government and the premier had lost their moral authority after the Supreme Court's order to arrest Ashraf and could not be allowed to continue.
Despite Qadri's claims that he is being supported by "millions", the crowd at Jinnah Avenue in the heart of Islamabad has been gradually thinning since yesterday. Though this is the largest demonstration in Islamabad in several years, TV anchors dismissed the cleric's claim and quoted authorities as saying that 25,000 to 50,000 people were at the protest.
As Qadri today urged Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan to join his protest, footage on television showed large gaps in the crowd listening to the cleric. He also said his followers should be prepared for a crackdown by authorities.
"Our chests are ready for your bullets...The first shot should be fired at me and not my followers," Qadri said, sitting inside his special bulletproof container. Qadri's supporters have set up tents on Jinnah Avenue, Islamabad's main boulevard that runs from the presidency to the commercial district of Blue Area, and brought in stocks of food and firewood.
The entire area was covered with litter. The sudden re-emergence of the cleric months ahead of Pakistan's general election has triggered fears in political circles that he is acting as a front for the military to delay the polls and prolong the duration of a caretaker administration.
However, Qadri said he had no interest in heading an interim administration as he was the "caretaker of the nation and of 180 million people".
The timing of the apex court's order to arrest the premier fuelled speculation about a judicial-military intervention.