LAHORE: Thousands of protesters set off from the Pakistani city of Lahore yesterday to march on the capital in a bid to unseat the government they claim was elected by fraud.
Supporters of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and populist preacher Tahir-ul-Qadri massed separately in Lahore before beginning the 300-kilometre journey to rally in Islamabad.
Both Khan and Qadri say the May 2013 general election was rigged and want Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign and hold new polls. Sharif won by a landslide.
The two groups, travelling in motorised convoy up the Grand Trunk Road to Islamabad on the anniversary of Pakistan’s independence from Britain, were not expected to reach the capital before late in the evening.
The authorities had insisted Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) march would not be allowed before relenting in the afternoon.
“The government has allowed PAT to march towards Islamabad on condition that they remain peaceful, no armed person joins the march and no participant of the march breaks any law,” a senior police official in Lahore said.
The authorities earlier said they would allow Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) political party came third in the polls, to go ahead with his march.
It is unclear whether either march will be allowed into the heavily-guarded capital, where security has been ramped up in recent days.
More than 20,000 police and security forces have been deployed and almost all roads into the city have been blocked by the authorities with barbed wire and shipping containers.
Announcing the start of the march in a speech to supporters, Qadri rattled off a list of pledges including discounted water and gas, and justice and healthcare for every citizen.
“It will be totally peaceful, nonviolent and democratic march,” he said. “We want to pull poor people out of poverty. Our revolution will establish a true democratic system.”
His followers earlier complained of government ‘double standards’, saying they were being penned in around their leader’s home in Lahore while PTI were being given free rein to carry on their protest.
PAT activists clashed with police last week when they tried to remove blockades around the cleric’s residence, leaving at least two people dead, and there were fears of more violence yesterday.
A journalist saw PAT supporters equipping themselves with clubs, masks and helmets in preparation for the march.
There was a festive mood in Lahore’s Zaman Park where thousands of PTI supporters gathered, waving green and red party flags, dancing and singing patriotic songs.
Khan urged his followers on, galvanising them into action.
“If you succeed, then there will be justice in Pakistan and people all around the world will respect the green passport,” Khan told the cheering crowd.
Khan, a cricket hero who led Pakistan to World Cup glory in 1992, has persistently cried foul over last year’s election and tried numerous avenues to have the results of a number of seats thrown out.
But international observers who monitored the polls said they were free and credible and critics say PTI should not have accepted their seats in parliament if they did not believe the vote was fair.
Some have accused PTI and PAT of being aided by the powerful military establishment to undermine the government, diverting attention from more pressing issues like an offensive against the Taliban in the northwest and the country’s economy.
On Monday Qadri said he wanted an ‘interim national government’ consisting of technocrats and experts.
In a country which has seen three coups in its 67-year history, the threat of army intervention always hovers in the background at times of unrest.
Political analyst and author Imtiaz Gul said there was a ‘real danger of bloodshed and violence’, but added a coup was unlikely, though the coming days could leave the civilian government weakened.
“Based on the past experiences and in view of the current national and international environment, the army will not possibly intervene,” he said.
“However it may still use its political clout to nudge the politicians away from confrontation.”
The military is rumoured to be unhappy with the way the Sharif government has pursued criminal charges, particularly a treason case, against former army chief Pervez Musharraf.