Leader who addresses the faithful by phone

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"You can hear our leader is busy," a woman at the MQM office in north London said on the telephone. She was almost drowned out by Altaf Hussain, who was bellowing on another line to thousands of his followers in Pakistan.

After tomorrow's election the 43-year-old Mr Hussain's support may be needed to form the next Pakistani government. His Mohajir Qaumi Movement, founded to fight for the 20 million descendants of Muslims who emigrated from India in 1947, is widely expected to hold the balance in parliament. In 1992 the MQM leader fled the bloodbath of Karachi - in which the authorities say he is deeply implicated - for safety in Britain. The Government has rejected demands for his extradition.

When Mr Hussain called later, he was still hoarse from hours of intercontinental rhetoric. "I have addressed rallies since 6am today," he said, "two in Punjab, one in Hyderabad and four in Karachi." His supporters at home connect the receiver to huge loudspeaker assemblies to broadcast his hours- long rants to the faithful. "The authorities keep cutting me off and making noise on the line, but mostly we get through," he said.

Under the new name of the United National Movement, the MQM is demanding an end to feudalism and political and economic rights for the 98 per cent of Pakistanis not born to privilege. But its populist appeal to non-Mohajirs is limited by its well-earned reputation for violence.

"I want to be with the people," Mr Hussain said. "It's not easy living in exile. But my party wants me to stay here, because they say my life wouldn't be safe at home."