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Pakistan Tensions Rise Ahead of Opposition Rallies

Supporters listen to a speech by Muhammad Tahirul Qadri, Sufi cleric and leader of political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), during a demonstration outside his residence in Lahore, August 10, 2014.

Political tensions have spiked in Pakistan, where tens of thousands of people are expected to march on Islamabad Thursday in a bid to oust Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government.

Pakistan's government has been scrambling to deal with the double challenge posed by fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and cricket-legend-turned opposition politician Imran Khan.

Authorities have brought in hundreds of shipping containers to block roads leading into Islamabad, and thousands of security personnel are deployed at key locations, including the parliament building and prime minister’s office.

Khan and Qadri have vowed to bring thousands of supporters to camp out in the capital until Prime Minister Sharif steps down and new elections are held. They have picked Pakistan’s Independence Day for their protest rallies.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party is the third largest force in parliament. He demands an audit of votes in several constituencies where he alleges “massive fraud” helped Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League win last year’s election. The opposition politician says the recount will help reveal that the entire election was rigged, but he has not presented any concrete evidence so far.

“We are determined to have a peaceful protest because we have knocked at all the doors to get justice, whether it is parliament, election commission, Supreme Court, election tribunals. Nowhere have we got justice in 14 months," he said. There is a huge coverup going on to stop this counting of these constituencies. We want re-elections. This is part of the constitution. This government does not have a mandate to rule.”

Qadri has been upset because a police crackdown in June to disperse an anti-government rally of his supporters in Lahore left around a dozen people dead. The cleric, a controversial figure who runs hundreds of mosques and Islamic seminaries across Pakistan, wants top provincial officials arrested and prosecuted. He says that in response authorities have arrested his followers under anti-terrorism laws.

In an attempt to defuse tensions, Prime Minister Sharif addressed the nation Tuesday night on television. He denied the election rigging allegations. Sharif also said that while he is ready to discuss the issue with Khan’s party, decisions should be made in parliament and not on the streets.

Sharif warns against “any effort to create anarchy and play with the constitution,” adding “the government will not allow anyone to paralyze the state machinery or incite bloody riots.”

The prime minister says the protest marches appear to be aimed merely at sabotaging his efforts to bring peace and economic stability to the country. He says his government will ask the Supreme Court to form a three-member panel of judges to investigate allegations of election fraud.

The extra security measures the government has taken to discourage the rallies, however, have undermined life and business in the capital city. Residents and shopkeepers complain of shortages of fuel and food supplies.