Protesters march on Pakistan parliament

Riot police mount defensive operation after opposition leaders vow to oust PM

Former cricket star and opposition leader Imran Khan speaks to supporters in Islamabad. Mr Khan says prime minister Nawaz Sharif rigged last year’s elections to secure his landslide win. Photograph: Bilawal Arbab/EPA

Former cricket star and opposition leader Imran Khan speaks to supporters in Islamabad. Mr Khan says prime minister Nawaz Sharif rigged last year’s elections to secure his landslide win. Photograph: Bilawal Arbab/EPA

Tue, Aug 19, 2014, 22:55

Thousands of protesters marched to the Pakistani parliament yesterday as part of a bid to force the prime minister to resign, using a crane and bolt cutters to force their way past barricades of shipping containers in the capital Islamabad.

Riot police and paramilitaries had tried to seal off the diplomatic and government zone before the march began, and were told not to intervene as protesters, some of them women throwing rose petals, moved all obstacles in their way.

“My blood is boiling today and I want to be martyred,” said 20-year-old Shams Khan, who came from the northwestern region of Bannu with his friends.

The protests have piled extra pressure on the 15-month-old civilian government as it struggles to overcome high unemployment, daily power cuts and a Taliban insurgency.

The protests have also raised questions over the political stability of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people with a history of coups.

In addition to Mr Khan’s protest, firebrand cleric Tahir ul-Qadri has also led his supporters to the capital to bring down Mr Sharif. Police estimate the two men have about 55,000 supporters between them. But Mr Qadri has not yet committed to joining Mr Khan, saying he would consult his supporters later in the day.

Their protests have so far remained separate because the two have different supporters and plans for what should happen if Mr Sharif steps down.

‘Challenge’ to state

Mr Khan says Mr Sharif rigged last year’s polls to secure his landslide win. Mr Qadri says Mr Sharif is corrupt. The government says Mr Sharif will not go and law enforcement will prevent protesters from reaching the Red Zone.

“This challenge to the writ of the state will not be acceptable under any circumstances,” said Marvi Memon, a legislator from Mr Sharif’s party. “By entering the Red Zone, what are you trying to prove?” she asked. “You cannot just go and sit on his chair and become prime minister.”

Outside the capital, police in Punjab, Pakistan’s wealthiest and most populous province, arrested 147 supporters of Mr Khan and Mr Qadri overnight to prevent them joining the protests in Islamabad, said Insp Rana Hussain in the central town of Sargodha.

Mr Khan also announced his party, the third largest in the country, would resign from their 34 seats in the National Assembly and in all provinces apart from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which his party controls.

Media hostility Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Afghanistan, is the heartland of the Taliban insurgency. If Mr Khan’s legislators resign, Pakistan will have to hold a raft of by

elections.

Pakistan’s newspapers have criticised Mr Khan, with many running editorials accusing him of seeking to provoke a violent confrontation after failing to muster the numbers needed to oust Mr Sharif. So far, the country’s powerful military has remained silent on the protests. Some analysts believe Mr Khan and Mr Qadri mounted their challenge because Mr Sharif’s relationship with the military had deteriorated, thus leaving the government isolated.

However, Mr Sharif, a conservative businessman, has a large power base. He won a landslide victory in last year’s election, taking a majority of seats in parliament. – (Reuters)