Pakistan’s powerful military has stepped in to act as “mediator and guarantor” to broker a deal between embattled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and two anti-government leaders calling for his ouster.
For days, opposition politician Imran Khan and a firebrand cleric, Tahir-ul Qadri, have been separately camping out in the heart of the Pakistani capital along with tens of thousands of anti-government supporters, demanding the prime minister step down.
Prime Minister Sharif refuses to do so, criticizing the calls for his ouster as unconstitutional. He has tried unsuccessfully to resolve the political impasse through several rounds of negotiations with protesting leaders.
Khan, who leads the third largest political bloc in parliament, is calling for another vote under a reformed electoral system. The cricketer-turned-politician alleges last year’s parliamentary polls were rigged to bring Sharif and his party to power.
Qadri wants charges brought against the prime minister and other top government officials, blaming them for the murder of 14 Qadri followers in a June police crackdown. Although the government allowed police on Thursday to institute a criminal case after a delay of more than two months, Qadri rejected the move and came up with new demands.
Late Thursday, Prime Minister Sharif asked the powerful military "to play its role" in defusing the mass protests.
Khan and Qadri announced the development to their supporters. During a late night speech, Khan told a cheering crowd that Army chief General Raheel Sharif contacted them and asked them to give him 24 hours to solve the crisis.
Khan told demonstrators "either festivities will be held on Friday or the anti-government campaign will be intensified."
For his part, Qadri thanked the military for coming forward to try to peacefully resolve the crisis.
The cleric said the army chief offered to act as a “mediator and guarantor for compiling and putting together a package of demands from both sides and will make sure they are implemented.”
After talks with Qadri and General Sharif in the nearby garrison city of Rawalpindi, Khan returned to the rally venue and said his party will not back down from its main demand that Prime Minister Sharif resign before a judicial probe is opened into election fraud charges.
Neither the army nor government officials discussed details of the talks.
The army is coming to the center of Pakistani politics at a time when the country is experiencing a sustained period of democratic rule. Sharif’s election as prime minister last year marked the first democratic transfer of power from one elected government to another.
Critics believe Prime Minister Sharif’s decision to try the last military coup leader, former president Pervez Musharraf, for high treason, and his attempts to take control of Pakistan’s policies toward rival India and Afghanistan, have strained his ties with the military.
While the army is unlikely to grab power at a time when chronic economic, security and energy challenges are facing Pakistan, some analysts do not rule out the possibility of the military’s involvement in encouraging the anti-government protests in order to retain its share in key national matters.