On March 17, Tahir-ul-Qadri -- the Pakistani cleric who led popular demonstrations that brought Islamabad to a standstill for four days in January -- plans to announce his intentions for the upcoming national elections at another major rally in Rawalpindi. Most American observers have written Qadri off as a flash in the Pakistani pan. They may need to think again. Qadri can still shake up Pakistani politics. In the near term, he remains a wildcard, disruptive in ways that might even tip the balance of power in Pakistan's next government. Over the long run, however, Qadri has the potential to play a far more constructive role in Pakistan's political development. Either way, Washington would do well to pay him closer attention.
It is possible that Qadri will decide to send his party, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, into the fray of national elections in May. Building a Pakistani party machine with credible, popular candidates is the work of years, not weeks, so there is a very good chance he wouldn't win any seats. Even so, Qadri-backed politicians might steal just enough votes to spoil the plans of the front-running party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) and shift the makeup of Islamabad's next ruling coalition.