ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is bracing itself for huge street protests in the capital, Islamabad, this week amid political crisis that has resulted in cities’ petrol supplies being cut, clashes between police and the followers of a popular cleric in Lahore, and demands by politician and former cricketer Imran Khan for the government to quit.
The chaos and political uncertainly comes a little more than a year after a landslide election victory swept Nawaz Sharif, a conservative businessman, to power for the third time. Sharif’s thumping parliamentary majority led to a rare outbreak of optimism among Pakistan watchers who dared to hope the new prime minister had the mandate to achieve his aims of reviving a broken economy, making peace with India and tackling Islamist militancy.
But in the 14 months since he took office, Sharif’s authority has been undermined by Pakistan’s powerful military, Canada-based cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and Khan a demagogue politician who claims Sharif’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) rigged the election.
Khan has vowed to bring Islamabad to a standstill on Thursday, the county’s independence day, when huge numbers of his supporters will flood into the capital. He has vowed that they will remain until the government steps down and fresh elections are called.
“We didn’t reject the election results immediately because we thought we could get relief from the courts,” said senior PTI leader Shafqat Mahmood. “But now we have decided that everything we tried in parliament and the courts has not worked and so we have no recourse but to launch a huge protest.”
Sceptical observers point out that Khan has no way to legally achieve his aims given the government has a huge majority in parliament and is unlikely to vote itself out of existence. Nonetheless, the prospect of Khan’s “Freedom March” (in reality, a motorised drive) from Lahore to Islamabad on Thursday, has seriously alarmed the government. Drastic steps have been taken to try to block the protest, including declaring a ban on gatherings of more than four people and giving the army responsibility for guarding Islamabad.
Other methods include the impounding of motorbikes and buses and the closure of petrol stations. The motorway linking Islamabad to Lahore is likely to be shut down. Critics say the government has mishandled the situation and should have allowed demonstrations to peter out during the sweltering monsoon conditions.
The government fears the presence of tens of thousands protesters in the capital could trigger violent confrontations creating an opening for an intervention by the army, which has seized power at several points in Pakistan’s history.
Addressing the press on Friday at his luxurious hilltop estate overlooking the capital, Khan said his supporters had the right to resist any attempts by the police or the army to enforce the ban on protests in the capital. “The police are not Pakistan’s police but Nawaz Sharif’s private henchmen,” he said. “If they try to stop peaceful protest then there is going to be violence.”
Sharif’s power has been challenged in the prime minister’s home city of Lahore, the capital of Punjab province. Supporters of Qadri have been resisting against police in cities across Punjab.
Qadri enjoys the support of huge numbers of committed activists through his political party, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) and his religious organisation, the Minhaj-ul-Quran. He has long called for revolution, claiming Pakistan’s democratic structure is mired in corruption and must be swept away. In recent days his supporters have clashed with police near his office in an upmarket neighbourhood of Lahore where the city’s authorities had attempted to stop activists commemorating the killing in June of 14 party workers during an earlier standoff with police.
Qadri has promised his “Green Revolution” will see the immediate incarceration of government ministers and the introduction of a “10-point revolutionary agenda”.
Based for much of the time in Canada, he flew into Pakistan in June, when the government diverted his commercial flight to Lahore to prevent him landing in Islamabad where his supporters were waiting for him. On Sunday Qadri announced he would also lead a “Revolution March” of his supporters on Islamabad, although the PTI and PAT have not formally joined their efforts.
On Sunday the police charged Qadri with murder, incitement to violence and treason after the death of a police constable who was wounded in confrontations in Lahore on Friday.
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