ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN —
Thousands of protesters calling for Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to step down continue to camp out in front of the parliament in Islamabad. Critics fear that if the situation is allowed to continue, the political impasse could inflict irreversible economic and political losses on the nuclear-armed nation, which has experienced repeated military coups.
Pakistan is witnessing a sustained period of democratic rule, and last year’s parliamentary elections resulted in the first ever transfer of power from one elected government to another.
Fourteen months later, though, two opposition figures have gathered thousands of their supporters in the capital to force Sharif out of office.
The protesters have been gathering for days in front of the national parliament.
Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan told reporters Friday the rallies have effectively disrupted life, along with business and education activities.
Observers are worried the political crisis could undermine democratic progress in the country.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, who leads the non-governmental Pakistan Institute for Legislative and Development Transparency [PILDAT], said, “We were moving toward what we thought was consolidation of democracy, and we [think] that if it continues, this is going to usher in a very stable era of democracy. But this current agitation going on, if it was just a protest it would not have bothered us, but it is demanding a change in government through undemocratic means and that is very disturbing.”
Opposition leader Imran Khan and firebrand cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri are leading the anti-government mass protests. Both have refused to leave until their demands are met.
Khan heads the third-largest political bloc in parliament and alleges a fraudulent vote enabled Sharif to win last year’s elections. He is demanding fresh elections under the supervision of a “non-political” interim government that would be set up after reforms in the electoral process.
In a bid to intensify pressure on the Sharif administration, Khan’s party resigned Friday from parliament.
Qadri is demanding that criminal cases be brought against top police officials, including provincial Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, younger brother of the prime minister, for the murder of at least a dozen of his followers. Qadri also wants the removal of both Sharifs from office.
The government has rejected as unconstitutional calls for Sharif’s ouster, and Mehboob said he is hopeful of resolving the crisis peacefully by addressing other issues.
Mehboob said authorities have to move quickly to end the impasse and allegations of vote-rigging need thorough investigations.
He said whenever prolonged anti-government agitations have reached a point where they paralyzed state business, it has paved the way for a military intervention.
“We have had our experiences, so a thing like that cannot be ruled out, but at this time I do not see that happening. So far we have not reached that stage but in the past we have seen that when things get bogged down, economy deteriorates and if politicians are unable to resolve things that is the time the military steps in,” said Mehboob.
In an unexpected statement Tuesday night, the military warned all stakeholders to demonstrate “patience and wisdom” to end the deadlock through “meaningful dialogue.”
Defense Minister Khawaja Asif said the military’s move was aimed at dispelling suggestions it is backing the protests.
“It is a defining moment for our country, for our Pakistani nation. We are setting up new traditions that despite the demand, I would call it a covert desire of those people who are [protesting] outside on the Constitution Avenue [of Islamabad] that there should be intervention, but they [the army] have not intervened. They have already dispelled the rumors,” said Asif.
While addressing his supporters at Islamabad’s rally, Khan also has repeatedly accused the United States of interfering in Pakistan’s internal matters by supporting Sharif. Washington has rejected the charge.
Marie Harf, deputy spokesperson at the State Department, said, "We are in no way involved in the process or the discussion between the parties. Any suggestion to the contrary is completely false. So, we're watching it, but we do think that there needs to be peaceful dialogue and no attempts to change Pakistan’s government through extra-constitutional attempts.
Analysts believe that while the military may be trying to help resolve the political deadlock, it is unlikely to seize power in Pakistan. They cite as impediments a prolonged counterinsurgency army campaign in northwestern parts of the country, an ailing national economy and a deepening energy crisis.