“Everything was being decided in the military offices. The government was just a rubber stamp. … It was dysfunctional,” he said.
General Musharraf, meanwhile, is orchestrating his own return to Pakistan on March 24 after nearly four years of self-imposed exile in Dubai. After seizing power in a military coup in 1999, he resigned in 2008 amid threats of impeachment. Gen. Musharraf has signalled he plans to run in the election and his camp has hinted at forming an alliance with Mr. Qadri’s party. However, it’s not clear whether Pakistan Awami Tehreek is interested.
While the mid-January Islamabad protest didn’t draw millions, as the Pakistani-Canadian cleric had billed, tens of thousands of people did show in chilly, damp weather. They camped out on the capital’s main avenue for four days, leaving only after Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and his Pakistan Peoples Party government agreed to a list of demands. Among them is an agreement to dissolve the National Assembly by March 16, when the government’s term ends, and a commitment to ensure the election commission vets all candidates for improprieties. The government also agreed to consult Mr. Qadri’s party on who will run the caretaker government, installed during campaign periods in Pakistan.
Mr. Qadri insists there is no link between him and the military. He also maintains he would not support a caretaker government lasting longer than 90 days, the limit under the country’s constitution.
“How can I support any kind of act which is against [the] constitution, against democracy? I can never think of that,” he said.
This year’s election is a pivotal moment for Pakistan, which has a long history of military coups. A successful campaign would mark the first democratic transition of power for the South Asian nation.
“There is a lot of speculation right now over what Qadri’s purpose was, what his continued purpose will be, how he will use his new-found political clout, and, really, who’s backing him? Where is his money coming from?” said Shamila Chaudhary, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, a think tank with headquarters in New York.
Despite these uncertainties, Ms. Chaudhary believes the Islamabad rally was positive for Pakistan because, overall, it was free of violence. It also showed that Pakistanis aren’t interested in an Egypt-style revolution, she said.
“There is this genuine sentiment on the street of, ‘This government hasn’t served the people and we’re sick of it,’ ” Ms. Chaudhary said. “But people want a peaceful, democratic transfer of power more than they want overt regime change at whatever cost. That was, I think, the ultimate lesson of this Qadri march.”
In a poster advertising Sunday’s rally, the thin, white-bearded cleric stands in the foreground with his right hand punching the air, his fingers shaped like a “V” for peace. Behind Mr. Qadri is a sea of people, waving the green-and-white flag of Pakistan.
His anti-corruption and anti-terrorism messages have resonated with many Pakistanis. The country’s economy is faltering. Its currency hit a record low in January and it is expected Pakistan will soon need a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Meanwhile, deadly sectarian violence continues to rattle the country.
Mr. Qadri said he wants to stay in Pakistan until he is confident the country’s elections are on a solid footing. He plans to eventually return to Canada and dismisses allegations that the RCMP wants to question him about his Canadian status, saying these are lies and part of a smear campaign. (The RCMP would not confirm or deny the report; a Canadian immigration official said she could not comment on Mr. Qadri’s status because of privacy policies.)
Not long before Mr. Qadri resurfaced in Pakistan in December, he met with Faheem Bukhari, a Toronto-area mortgage agent. Mr. Bukhari was worried for the cleric’s safety. In Pakistan, Mr. Qadri has delivered speeches behind bullet-resistant glass. His 2010 fatwa denouncing suicide bombings and terrorism had angered many Islamic militants.
“Obviously, he’s in a lot of danger,” said Mr. Bukhari, who first heard the cleric speak about 35 years ago at an Islamic centre in Pakistan.
When Mr. Qadri moved to Canada, Mr. Bukhari encouraged him to play an active role in the Muslim community here. But the cleric told him he wanted to focus on his research and writing, and so Mr. Qadri retreated to a quiet corner of his house, the exact location of which he has kept private.
The Sufi scholar started opening up and giving more talks after he released his fatwa, said Mr. Bukhari, a member of Minhaj-ul-Quran, which operates in more than 90 countries and oversees hundreds of schools in Pakistan.
“If anyone can shake up Pakistan’s national conscience, that’s him,” Mr. Bukhari said. “He is the right person to do it.”