Fears for political stability as thousands of protesters march to Pakistan’s capital

Groups say the government is corrupt and should step down

Supporters of Tahirul Qadri, a Pakistani-Canadian cleric, attending a protest march to Islamabad, in Lahore, yesterday. Anti-government protests are calling for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to step down. Photograph: Rahat Dar/EPA

Supporters of Tahirul Qadri, a Pakistani-Canadian cleric, attending a protest march to Islamabad, in Lahore, yesterday. Anti-government protests are calling for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to step down. Photograph: Rahat Dar/EPA

Thu, Aug 14, 2014, 22:09

Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters began a march to the Pakistani capital Islamabad yesterday, raising fears for political stability and civilian rule in the nuclear-armed south Asian country.

Two protest groups – one led by cricketer-turned-opposition politician Imran Khan, the other by activist cleric Tahir ul-Qadri – are heading to the capital from the eastern city of Lahore. They say the government is corrupt and should step down.

Both marches were initially banned, then allowed to go ahead at the last minute. The protesters caused huge traffic jams, and by evening the leaders and most marchers had not left Lahore.

Reporters in Lahore and Peshawar said tens of thousands of people were congregating for the marches.

Mr Khan and Mr Qadri are not officially allied, though both are enemies of the government of Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whose party swept an election last year. It was the first transfer of power from one elected government to another in the history of coup-prone Pakistan.

Mr Qadri is a Muslim preacher-turned-political activist who lives most of the time in Canada. His supporters, many from his network of Islamic schools and charities, have been involved in several fatal clashes with police.

Tight security

In Islamabad, security was tight. Main roads and key areas, including embassies, were blocked by riot police and shipping containers. But the interior minister said the marchers would be allowed to enter.

Mr Qadri’s spokesman said they planned to occupy Jinnah Avenue, the main street in the capital near many embassies and top government offices.

Mr Qadri has said he plans to force out Mr Sharif and his government by the end of the month. “There will be a sit-in. They will stay there until their demands are met and [Mr Sharif] steps down,” he said.

The cleric’s calls for revolution appeal to poor Pakistanis struggling with high unemployment, power cuts and inflation. The promises he makes also appeal to them: “Every homeless person will be provided housing; every unemployed person will be given a job; low-paid people will be provided with daily necessities,” he said yesterday.

One of his main complaints is that violence against his supporters by police is not being properly investigated.

Mr Khan said he was cheated in the general election in May last year and wants a proper investigation into his complaints.

The political confrontation has revived concern about the competition for power between the military and civilian leaders. Some officials have accused elements in the military of orchestrating the protests to weaken the government. The military insists it does not meddle in politics. – (Reuters)