Pakistani security forces fired in the air and used tear gas in the capital Islamabad on Tuesday to
disperse supporters of a cleric who called for mass rallies against the government.
Muslim preacher Tahir-ul Qadri delivered a frenzied address to an estimated 25,000 people waving flags and chanting near the parliament building, blaming a corrupt government for the ills of a country beset by a fragile economy and Islamist violence.
He led his followers into the heavily fortified capital overnight, the climax of a 38-hour journey through towns and villages from the eastern city of Lahore, where they were showered with rose petals by supporters who lined the streets.
Live television coverage showed forces firing in the air - a serious escalation in attempts to control crowds - while supporters of Qadri hurled stones at them.
Qadri’s spokesman told Reuters the crowds had prevented government forces from arresting the cleric. He said six supporters of the cleric were wounded.
Qadri’s call has divided Pakistanis. Some hold him up as a champion of reform, others see him as a possible stooge of the powerful military, which has a history of coups and interfering in elections.
The populist cleric, 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 calls for sweeping reforms have weakened the ruling Pakistan Peoples’ Party, which has failed to tackle a staggering array of problems - from a Taliban insurgency to crippling power cuts to widespread poverty.
Few believe Pakistan’s military has the appetite for another coup, especially since the Supreme Court has been standing up to the generals.
But the army would be happy to see figures like Qadri highlight the government’s flaws, and perhaps play a behind-the-scenes role supporting him, analysts say. The military denies backing Qadri.
The influential cleric, who runs an educational and religious organisation with networks all over the world, returned to Pakistan last month from years living in Canada, where he also has citizenship.
His supporters say his calls to end corruption and implement reforms could be the solution to endless problems in Pakistan, brought to the brink by a crippling energy crisis and years of Islamist bloodshed.
Mobile phone networks -- sometimes used by Taliban militants to trigger bombs remotely -- were suspended overnight as part of draconian security measures that have shut down much of the center of Islamabad.
If held on schedule, the election will mark the first democratic transition of power between two civilian governments in Pakistan's 65-year history, which has been marked by bloodless coups and extensive periods of military rule.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry said Tuesday that elections should be held on time and the Supreme Court “will not compromise” on the issue.