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Iran's neighbor, Pakistan is preparing for an election this spring and an expatriate Pakistani has come home to play a role. Now many of this country's leading figures spend years of their lives abroad. One of the leading political parties is run by a man in exile in London. Other citizens have multiple passports, so maybe it should be no surprise that a man named Tahir-ul-Qadri would spend eight years in Canada and then come home to lead mass protests.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF A DRUM BAND)

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: It's a warm winter's day and a lively drum band wanders among a crowd of about 15,000 Pakistanis gathered in the eastern city of Faisalabad, for a rally organized by Tahir-ul-Qadri. The slight, 61-year-old cleric, wearing his trademark blue pin-striped cloak and shiny white religious cap, captivates the crowd with a long and fiery speech.

DR. TAHIR-UL-QADRI: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS)

NORTHAM: Qadri says Pakistan's oppressed and destitute are with him in his fight against inequality and corruption. Qadri's speech touches a nerve for many in the crowd, including 45 year old Kaneez Fatima.

KANEEZ FATIMA: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: We have come here because we want change and get rid of this corrupt system.

This is Qadri's second series of rallies since he returned to Pakistan from Canada last December. The crowds are made up primarily of followers of his movement Tehrik-e-Minhaj-ul-Quran, which is a vast religious charity overseeing about 600 schools in Pakistan and offices in 80 countries.

In an interview with NPR, Qadri said he wants to enlighten people about their democratic rights.

TAHIR-UL-QADRI: I am trying to create an awareness of true concept of democracy, awareness of human rights, real human rights. The people who are treated here like goats, they don't have any concept of democracy.

NORTHAM: Qadri is taking on Pakistan's government, saying it has failed to curb militancy or improve the economy. And he's demanding electoral reforms to prevent corrupt politicians from holding office.

TAHIR-UL-QADRI: I am fighting just to make the electoral and democratic process transparent, free of corrupt practices.

NORTHAM: Qadri became a powerful force almost immediately after his return to Pakistan. He created a media blitz as he jumped from one city to another, pulling in huge crowds at his rallies.

In January, the center of Islamabad was paralyzed for four days as thousands of his followers camped out on one of the city's main avenues. The protest ended when members of the main political parties sat and negotiated with Qadri inside his bulletproof enclosure.

HAMID MIR: The man stinks a lot. And he has no credibility.

NORTHAM: Hamid Mir, a political commentator for Geo News, has known Qadri for 25 years. He says when the cleric lived in Pakistan, he switched alliances with major political players several times. Mir says Qadri has used the financial resources of his charity to help pay for all the recent attention.

MIR: He was putting a lot of money in media, he was giving millions of rupees to the owners of the TV channels, even was able to influence the content of some very popular talk show hosts.

NORTHAM: Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and political commentator, says the message may be good, but he questions the messenger. Masood calls Qadri a demagogue.

TALAT MASOOD: He is very good orator. He is very knowledgeable as far as Islam teachings are concerned, so he was able to sort of influence and have a wide following amongst lower and middle class in Pakistan. And people in Pakistan are always looking for a change, and I think he exploited that.

NORTHAM: Many people refuse to take Qadri at face value and question his motives. There's widespread speculation that he's working with the military to manipulate upcoming elections, but there's no proof. Qadri himself can't run for office because he now holds Canadian citizenship. Masood thinks Qadri may just like the limelight.

MASOOD: He actually wants to be in the center stage, and he wants power, he wants I think to be in prominence all the time.

NORTHAM: But last week, Qadri suffered a setback when Pakistan's Supreme Court denied his petition to make a fundamental change in the electoral process. Masood said this turn of events is unlikely to hold back Qadri for very long.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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