Pakistani protesters attempt to blockade parliament, but MPs escape

Qadri and Imran Khan are trying to force Sharif to resign over allegations of election rigging and corruption. Their supporters broke through police barricades to surround parliament.

Pakistani protesters attempt to blockade parliament, but MPs escape

World Bulletin/News Desk

Thousands of Pakistani protesters tried to blockade parliament on Wednesday after an anti-government cleric told them not to allow anyone in or out, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inside at the time, but the lawmakers left by a back entrance.

The protesters have taken to the streets of Islamabad for five days, led by cricket star turned opposition leader Imran Khan and cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, who runs a network of schools and charities.

Both want Sharif to resign over allegations of corruption and election rigging. The Supreme Court summoned both to appear before the court on Thursday.

Most protesters say they are demonstrating against government corruption, which they blame for the country's widespread poverty.

On Tuesday night, protesters used cranes and bolt cutters to dismantle police barricades and surround parliament. On Wednesday, Qadri urged the crowd to barricade lawmakers and the prime minister inside as they met to discuss the crisis.

"Don't let all those inside come out and don't let anyone go in," he told supporters.

His exhausted followers, some carrying blankets or colourful umbrellas, were resting in the shade on the grass on Constitution Avenue when he spoke. But they immediately rose to block the entrance to parliament.

Riot police and paramilitary forces in the area did not intervene and Qadri urged the crowd to remain peaceful.

"If you and the army come face to face, don't raise your hand. If you do, you will not be welcome amongst us," Qadri said.

Legislators left parliament by a back entrance. Lawmaker Marvi Memon, from the ruling party, said every parliamentarian present had denounced the protests and offered support to the government.

"This affront to parliamentary democracy has been noted," she said. "This is only a handful of people and they do not represent the will of the people."

Parliament would reconvene on Thursday, she said.

But Khan has given Sharif until 8 p.m. (1500 GMT) on Wednesday to resign or face an invasion of protesters at the prime minister's official residence.

"Now no police nor army will stop us," he told supporters on Tuesday. If Sharif did not step down, he said, "we will come to the prime minister's house".

The military, which often acts as an arbiter when it is not ruling directly, has called for a political solution to the crisis.

"Situation requires patience, wisdom and sagacity from all stakeholders to resolve prevailing impasse through meaningful dialogue in larger national and public interest," military spokesman General Asim Bajwa tweeted as the protesters approached parliament.

Last month, the civilian government made the military officially responsible for the security of top government offices. All the protesters have been careful not to offend the military, which is Pakistan's most powerful institution.

The country's other two power centres are the embattled civilian government and the activist judiciary, which waded into the fray on Wednesday when Chief Justice Nasir ul-Mulk summoned Khan and Qadri to appear on Thursday over a petition filed against their protests.

Pakistan's top courts can declare an interest in any case or accept and investigate a complaint from any petitioner. They can also charge those who question their decisions with contempt of court.

Khan wants Sharif to step down because he believes the prime minister rigged last year's polls. Sharif won the election by a landslide, taking 190 out of 342 seats in the national assembly.

The polls were the first democratic transfer of power in Pakistan's history and also propelled Khan from a fringe player to head of the third-largest legislative bloc in the country.

Both Khan and Qadri have been holding protest rallies in the capital since Friday with government permission. But they have been banned from the "Red Zone", which houses many Western embassies, parliament and the office and home of Sharif.

Most of Khan's supporters are young men. Qadri's supporters are seen as more disciplined and determined; there are many families among them. All the men have sticks; brigades of youths also have goggles and masks to deal with teargas.

The Red Zone is sealed off with shipping containers and barbed wire and flooded with riot police and paramilitaries.

RED ZONE

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar announced earlier the military would co-ordinate the defence of the Red Zone.

"The government has decided to hand over the security of the Red Zone of Islamabad to the army," he said in a news conference.

Three tiers of security had been put in place, he said, using police and government paramilitary forces.

"This challenge to the writ of the state will not be acceptable under any circumstances," Marvi Memon, a legislator from Sharif's party, told a news conference.

"By entering the Red Zone, what are you trying to prove?" she asked. "You cannot just go and sit on his chair and become prime minister."

On Monday, Khan also announced his party, the third largest in the country, would resign from their 34 seats in the National Assembly and in all provinces apart from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which his party controls.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Afghanistan, is the heartland of the Taliban insurgency.

Memon said no formal resignations had been received so far.

ARMY BACK

As tens of thousands of protesters advanced on the Pakistani capital last week to demand his resignation, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dispatched two emissaries to consult with the army chief.

He wanted to know if the military was quietly engineering the twin protest movements.

According to a government insider with a first-hand account of the meeting, Sharif's envoys returned with good news and bad: there will be no coup, but if he wants his government to survive, from now on it will have to "share space with the army".

Even if, as seems likely, the Khan and Qadri protests eventually fizzle out due to a lack of overt support from the military, the prime minister will emerge weakened from the crisis.

The army may have saved his skin, but its price will be subservience to the generals on issues he wanted to handle himself - from the fight against the Taliban to relations with arch foe India and Pakistan's role in neighbouring, post-NATO Afghanistan.

"The biggest loser will be Nawaz, cut down to size both by puny political rivals and the powerful army," said a government minister who asked not to be named. "From this moment on, he'll always be looking over his shoulder."

A year ago, few would have predicted that Sharif would be in such trouble: back then, he had just swept to power for a third time in a milestone poll that marked nuclear-armed Pakistan's first transition from one elected government to another.

But in the months that followed, Sharif - who had crossed swords with the army in the past - moved to enhance the clout of the civilian government in a country that has been ruled by the military for more than half of its turbulent history.

He irked the generals by putting former military head Pervez Musharraf, who had abruptly ended his last stint as prime minister in a 1999 coup, on trial for treason.

Sharif also opposed a military offensive to crush Taliban, sided with a media group that had accused the military of shooting one of its journalists and sought reconciliation with India, the perceived threat that the army uses to justify its huge budget and national importance. 

INDIA RAPPROCHEMENT AT RISK

Sources in Sharif's government said that, with civilian-military relations in such bad shape, Sharif suspected that the street protests to unseat him were being manipulated from behind the scenes by the army.

He also feared that, if the agitations turned violent, the army would exploit the situation to seize power for itself.

However, the two close aides who went to see army chief Raheel Sharif in the garrison town of Rawalpindi last Wednesday were told that the military had no intention of intervening.

"The military does not intend to carry out a coup but ... if the government wants to get through its many problems and the four remaining years of its term, it has to share space with the army," said the insider, summing up the message they were given.

"Sharing space" is a familiar euphemism for civilian governments focusing narrowly on domestic political affairs and leaving security and strategic policy to the army.

The army's media wing declined to comment on the meeting.

The fact that the military is back in the driving seat will make it harder for Sharif to deliver the rapprochement with India that he promised when he won the election last year.

Indian media speculated this week that Sharif had already been forced by the generals to scuttle peace talks.

New Delhi on Monday called off a meeting between foreign ministry officials of the two countries, which had been set to take place on Aug. 25, because Pakistan announced its intention to consult Kashmiri leaders ahead of the meeting.

The Pakistani army's predominance could also mean it could torpedo the government's relationship with Afghanistan, where a regional jostle for influence is expected to intensify after the withdrawal of most foreign forces at the end of this year. 

PAYING THE PRICE

Few believed that the army would back Khan's bid for power even if it used him to put Sharif on the defensive.

"Even the army knows that Imran Khan may be a great pressure cooker in the kitchen, but you can't trust him to be the chef," said a former intelligence chief who declined to be named.

Sharif may now pay the price for miscalculating that the military might have been willing to let the one-time cricket hero topple him.

"Thinking that Imran could be a game-changer, Nawaz has conceded the maximum to the army," a Sharif aide said.

"From a czar-like prime minister, they (the army) have reduced him to a deputy commissioner-type character who will deal with the day-to-day running of the country while they take care of the important stuff like Afghanistan and India. This is not a small loss."

But Sharif's aides say a stint in jail under Musharraf, followed by exile from Pakistan and five years as leader of the opposition party, have made him realise that he needs to share power to survive.

"This is not the old Nawaz, the wild confrontationalist," said an adviser to the prime minister in Lahore, the capital of his Punjab province power base. "This is the new Nawaz who has learnt the hard way that politics is about living to fight another day."

Last Mod: 20 Ağustos 2014, 13:01
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