When Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi greets supporters on the Pakistan election trail, he opens his pitch with the kind of promises to the poor that any other politician might make.
However, behind the reassuring rhetoric lies what his opponents believe is a dangerous agenda: to gain a foothold in the Pakistani parliament and further his designs to oppress Pakistan’s Shiite minority.
Ludhianvi, a radical Sunni cleric, is a hate figure for Shiites, who accuse him of devoting his decades-long career to fomenting an escalating campaign of gun attacks and suicide bombings against them.
The prospect that he might win a place in the political mainstream at the May 11 vote horrifies Shiites, who fear his presence in parliament will give him a much stronger platform to strike out at the sect.
It looks like Ludhianvi may have a better shot than at the last election in 2008, when he came second. His main rival has been barred from the race and he seems to have many supporters in his constituency of Jhang in Punjab Province.
As Ludhianvi toured Jhang, people in one village after another showered him with rose petals.
“If I get into parliament, I will be able to save this entire country from bloodshed,” said Ludhianvi, who wears a thick beard and projects a commanding presence.
The election is seen as a milestone for Pakistan’s fragile democracy, marking the first time a civilian government has completed a full term in a country with a long history of military meddling in politics.
Western powers are hoping the polls might deliver a government capable of grappling with huge domestic challenges and helping the US bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table ahead of a NATO pullout next year.
Any triumph by Ludhianvi could be read as a sign that sectarianism — now seen as a top security threat — has made a troubling new in-road into the political sphere.
Ludhianvi was a leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba, a sectarian Sunni group which emerged in Jhang in the mid-1980s with the support of Pakistani intelligence and which has since been linked to hundreds of killings of Shiites.
The group’s offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), evolved into one of Pakistan’s most feared militant groups and has claimed responsibility for many attacks on Shiites.
Police in Karachi suspect LeJ or similar groups are behind a recent wave of gun attacks on Shiites.
Pakistan banned Sipah-e-Sahaba in 2001 under pressure from the US to crack down on militancy, but the group changed its name to Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ), which Ludhianvi heads.
Security officials see Ludhianvi as a member of a core group of ideologues whose anti-Shiite views have served as a source of inspiration for militants.
However, Ludhianvi is careful to portray himself as a man of peace and is waging a populist campaign to capitalize on resentment of Shiite landowners. Coming from a modest background, he has vowed to build schools, hospitals and roads.
“This is a tribal area which was ruled by a few rich people who used to treat the poor people like slaves,” Ludhianvi said.
Yet other senior members of his ASWJ party are more vocal about their desire to restrict the rights of Shiites.
Aurangzeb Farooqi, head of the party in Karachi, told reporters in January that Shiites should be barred from holding important public office and their public religious activities should be restricted.