ISLAMABAD (AP) — A fiery anti-government cleric led a massive rally Saturday in Pakistan's capital, demanding the country's prime minister step down over alleged fraud in last year's election in front of thousands of protesters.
Cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, along with famous cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, have drawn tens of thousands of demonstrators to dual protests that have disrupted life across Islamabad. They demand Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif step down over the alleged fraud in the country's May 2013 election, something Sharif has refused to do.
Their challenge, which they say will last until Sharif leaves office, has raised the fear of political instability in this nuclear-armed nation that only saw its first democratic transfer of power last year.
On Saturday, Qadri told his supporters to continue protesting until they bring a "peaceful revolution." Khan's thousands of supporters have camped out nearby.
Both Khan and Qadri have vowed to bring 1 million followers into the streets of Islamabad, a city of roughly 1.7 million inhabitants. Police estimated that nearly 10,000 people were present at Qadri's rally.
Shortly after Qadri's speech, senior Cabinet minister Ahsan Iqbal urged the two opposition leaders to relax their demands that Sharif step down.
"We do hope that Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri will show flexibility" to end political instability, Iqbal said.
Qadri, who is also a Canadian national, commands a loyal following of thousands through his network of mosques and religious schools in Pakistan. Last year, Qadri held a protest in the capital calling for vaguely worded election reforms ahead of the country's May poll, grinding life in Islamabad to a halt.
Khan meanwhile helms the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, which is the third-largest political bloc in parliament.
Ahead of the protests, security forces put shipping containers on streets as roadblocks and stationed riot police around the capital. Sharif, himself overthrown in the 1999 coup that brought former army chief Pervez Musharraf to power, has said he will not step down.
Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of 180 million people, has largely been ruled by military dictators since it was carved out of India in 1947. The army still wields great influence in Pakistan, which is battling several militant groups, but has not taken sides in the protests. There are fears, however, that political unrest could prompt the military to intervene.
Pakistan's military is currently fighting militants in the country's North Waziristan tribal region in an effort to eliminate extremists accused of orchestrating attacks in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.