SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association)-Pakistan’s embattled prime minister said on Wednesday (Aug 27) he would not cave in to protests demanding his resignation, striking a defiant note in his first major speech since the crisis erupted two weeks ago.
Nawaz Sharif told parliament his government would not be thrown off course by the demonstrations led by populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and opposition leader Imran Khan – who later called off talks with the government for a second time.
Thousands of Khan’s and Qadri’s followers have been camped outside parliament since August 15 demanding Sharif quit, claiming the election which swept him to power last year was rigged.
The crisis has rattled Sharif’s government 15 months into a five-year term and prompted rumours the army may intervene to resolve matters – and in doing so effectively put the elected government under its thumb.
In a country that has seen three military coups, the threat of army intervention casts a shadow over virtually every moment of political crisis.
But Sharif told lawmakers his Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) government would stay the course. “We are not going to be diverted by these things,” he said. “The journey for the supremacy of constitution and law in Pakistan will continue with full determination and, God willing, there will not be any interruption in it.”
He said the plan to revive the ailing economy through major development and infrastructure projects – a key plank of the PML-N manifesto – would continue.
Khan has alleged massive cheating in the May 2013 poll, though international observers said the vote was largely free and fair.
Shortly before the former cricket star and Qadri began their protests with “long marches” from the eastern city of Lahore, Sharif announced a judicial commission to investigate rigging claims in some seats, but Khan rejected the offer.
The government has also set up a parliamentary committee to consider electoral reform and Sharif urged Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to support it.
“We want to bring reforms in all areas as we have to think about the future generation and find ways to take the country towards the destination of progress,” he added.
TALKS OFF, AGAIN
The protests in Islamabad have so far been peaceful, with security forces – deployed in huge numbers in the capital – taking a hands-off approach to the demonstrations.
But both protest leaders have stoked fears of an imminent violent crackdown, with Qadri telling supporters he was ready to be “martyred” as his followers dressed in funeral shrouds during a rally on Wednesday.
Efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis have made little headway, with Khan sticking to his hardline demand that Sharif must quit. Khan on Wednesday told supporters the time for negotiations was now over. He previously called off talks last Thursday, only to resume them a day later.
“We have decided – Nawaz Sharif, listen – there will be no negotiations until you resign. I will not accept anything but Nawaz Sharif’s resignation to save democracy.
“There is no room for talks. I will not leave this place until Nawaz Sharif resigns,” Khan said – adding that he had refused an offer by Sharif to make him deputy prime minister in exchange for calling off his protest.
Earlier railways minister Khawaja Saad Rafique told parliament the government was prepared to meet all of the PTI’s demands to investigate rigging barring the prime minister’s resignation.
“They said they have suspicions of rigging, we told them that we would constitute a judicial commission and if rigging is proved, not only the prime minister but all of us will resign,” he said.
“But they are insisting that the prime minister should resign even if it’s for 30 days. Is this the way this country of 180 million people should be governed?”
On Tuesday Sharif met the powerful army chief General Raheel Sharif and issued a statement saying they had agreed on the need to end the standoff “expeditiously”.
Neither protest movement has mobilised mass support beyond their core followers, and other opposition parties have shunned Khan’s call to unseat the government and begin a campaign of civil disobedience.