TIME Pakistan

Pakistan Protesters Clash With Police as Calls for Sharif’s Ouster Grow

Supporters of Tahir ul-Qadri, Sufi cleric and leader of political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), carry an injured fellow protester during the Revolution March in Islamabad
Supporters of Tahir ul-Qadri, Sufi cleric and leader of political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), carry an injured fellow protester during the Revolution March in Islamabad, Aug. 31, 2014. Zohra Bensemra—Reuters

Three die in violence as opposition leaders demand Pakistani Prime Minister resign over electoral-fraud claims

There is an old joke about Islamabad, the sleepy and verdant capital of Pakistan: It is half the size of Arlington National Cemetery, it goes, but twice as dead. On Saturday night, however, the quiet streets near the government buildings in Islamabad were transformed into what many observers compared to a war zone, as anti-government protesters clashed for hours with the police amid clouds of tear gas. Three people are reported to have died, and hundreds wounded.

The clashes have dimmed hopes of an agreement being reached between the embattled government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the tens of thousands of protesters led by former cricket legend turned opposition leader Imran Khan and his ally, cleric Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri.

Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, contends the elections last year that brought Sharif to power for a third time were rigged. He is demanding the resignation of Sharif and fresh elections. Qadri wants nothing less than a complete overhaul of the political system through a “revolution.” Until Saturday, authorities had generally tolerated the crowds of protesters who began gathering in Islamabad on Aug. 14 for mostly peaceful demonstrations.

But as Khan and Qadri make clear that they will not settle for anything short of Sharif’s resignation, the deadlock has raised the prospect of an increasingly dangerous confrontation that could bring down the 15-month-old civilian government.

The two sides blame each other for the violence. Late on Saturday, Khan and Qadri urged their followers to enter the highly fortified “red zone” of the capital, a security-sensitive area at one end of Islamabad that is home to the presidential palace, Parliament, the Prime Minister’s house, the Supreme Court and many foreign embassies. The government says it was forced to respond after the protesters cleared away shipping containers used as barricades and advanced toward the Prime Minister’s residence.

Doctors treating the injured said the police had used several rounds of tear gas, baton charges and even rubber bullets. Images circulating on social media showed the bodies of protesters bearing bloody and livid scars from the apparent use of rubber bullets. At the same time, the police said they were confronted with a contingent intent on carrying out violence against state institutions, armed with large sticks, hammers and iron rods. Some of the protesters cut the gates at Parliament, letting hundreds enter into its lawns and parking area.

Pakistan’s journalists were caught in the middle of the clashes. Geo TV, one of Pakistan’s largest news channels, claimed that its offices were attacked by protesters, broadcasting images of large holes in its glass building. The standoff between the government and the protesters has sharply polarized Pakistan’s lively and excitable news media, with prominent news anchors taking vocal positions on both sides of the divide.

Sharif’s government has attempted to engage with the demonstrators. Earlier in the week, the army chief General Raheel Sharif — no relation to the Prime Minister — had been asked by the government to step in and mediate an end to the protests. But neither Khan nor Qadri seem prepared to compromise on anything short of their exacting demands.

The government says it is prepared to give Khan all he has asked for, including a high-profile judicial inquiry into allegations of electoral fraud, except Sharif’s resignation. But on Sunday morning, the onetime cricket star appeared emboldened by the protests, calling on supporters around the country to convene on Islamabad for a fresh night of protests.

Not all of Khan’s allies believe that’s the best approach. Javed Hashmi, a widely respected member of Khan’s party, spoke out Sunday against the decision to advance on the Prime Minister’s residence and Parliament. “This kind of behavior is not seen in any country in the world, where people pick up sticks and protest outside the Prime Minister’s house,” Hashmi said. He added that if martial law is imposed in the country, Khan will bear the blame for leading Pakistan to that fate.

Sharif, meanwhile, remains determined to stay in power. But Saturday night’s violence, with the threat of another confrontation Sunday, may have eroded his authority further. Up to now, analysts believed that Sharif’s premiership would withstand the demonstrations, despite being weakened by them. On Sunday morning, however, several commentators on Pakistani news channels have been drawing comparisons with 1977, when anti-rigging protests and police brutality against the backdrop of failed negotiations led to a military coup.

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan’s Army Steps in as Politicians Continue to Squabble

PAKISTAN-UNREST-POLITICS
Pakistani supporters of Canada-based preacher Tahir-ul-Qadri shout anti-government slogans during a protest in front of the Parliament in Islamabad on Aug. 29, 2014. Aamir Qureshi—AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif asked the powerful army chief to negotiate a resolution to the political crisis

Just last May, Pakistan was celebrating its first ever successful transition from one elected government to another, after the completion of a full five-year term in office. Now, just 15 months after the last elections, hopes of democracy strengthening have dissipated after the country’s powerful army stepped in on Thursday night to assume a political role and mediate with anti-government protestors.

For over two weeks now, the Pakistani capital Islamabad has been paralyzed by tens of thousands of protestors led by the former cricket captain-turned-opposition leader Imran Khan and the prominent cleric Tahir ul-Qadri. The two groups insisted they were separate but led closely coordinated campaigns. Khan wanted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign, while Qadri has been insisting on a complete overhaul of the country’s political system as part of a self-styled “revolution.”

The government’s efforts to negotiate with the protestors repeatedly failed. Each time, Khan said that nothing short of the prime minister’s resignation would suffice. The former World Cup-winning cricket star claims that last year’s elections were systematically rigged to deny him victory—something the government strenuously denies. The European Union’s Election Observation Mission praised the 2013 elections as a demonstration of “strong democratic commitment,” in its July 2013 report, but added that “fundamental problems” remain in the electoral process that leave it “vulnerable to malpractice.”

Khan has become an increasingly polarizing figure in recent weeks: to his hardcore of supporters he is a rare, principled politician taking on a venal and inept political class; to his opponents he is a vain and reckless politician who is prepared to risk damaging democracy in pursuit of power. At the height of the protests, he incited his supporters to stop paying taxes and electricity bills as part of a “civil disobedience” campaign, and, in a flight of rhetoric, even seemed to be challenging Prime Minister Sharif to a duel.

Late on Thursday night, after weeks of holding out, Prime Minister Sharif asked Gen. Raheel Sharif (no relation) to negotiate a resolution to the crisis. The move seemed to underscore two abiding realities in Pakistan. The often squabbling civilians are still unable to resolve their differences among themselves, and that the true center of power remains the military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi.

There is no danger of the army taking over and imposing martial law. There appears to be little appetite for that in Pakistan, despite similar rollbacks of civilian rule over the last two years in Egypt and Thailand. But now the civilian government’s authority has been badly, if not fatally, weakened. Even if Prime Minister Sharif survives the current crisis, with his parliamentary majority intact, he will be hamstrung in his ability to implement many of his proposed reforms.

The Sharif government has scarcely helped itself, though. Prime Minister Sharif’s name was this week included among the accused in a police report looking into the killings of 14 protestors loyal to cleric Qadri in June, in the eastern city of Lahore. On that occasion, the notoriously heavy-handed Punjab police lived up to its reputation by assailing the crowds with tear gas and later opening fire. The prime minister isn’t likely to be tried for the incident, but his younger brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, is facing intense pressure to step down now.

Although Prime Minister Sharif formally asked the army chief to step in, it is widely suggested that he did so reluctantly. The Punjabi industrialist-turned-leader of the conservative Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has a decades-old difficult relationship with Pakistan’s generals. Once a protégé of the former dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Sharif turned against his mentors and has repeatedly clashed with every army chief during his two terms as prime minister in the 1990s. The last of those confrontations, in 1999, saw him overthrown in a military coup led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Prime Minister Sharif’s current difficulties with the army appear to stretch back to his decision, soon after assuming office last year, to place Musharraf on trial for imposing a state of emergency in November 2007. His government’s other initiatives, including attempts at warmer ties with neighbors New Delhi and Kabul through an independent foreign policy, are believed to have chafed military leaders. Now, the army will likely play a more decisive role when it comes to Pakistan’s foreign and defense policies, relegating the civilians to the often messy and unpopular business of day-to-day governance.

Soon after it was announced that the army chief would step into mediate late on Thursday night, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the defense minister and one of Prime Minister Sharif’s closest aides tried to gloss over the occasion by claiming that the army was merely playing “a constitutional role”. But another member of the Sharif cabinet was plainly dispirited by the sight of thousands on the street being able to imperil a national electoral mandate. A picture is worth a thousand words, tweeted Khurram Dastgir-Khan, the commerce minister, with an attached image. It was the movie poster for George Lucas’ Star Wars film, “The Empire Strikes Back.”

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