ISLAMABAD: Pakistani ministers and opposition politicians met anti-government protesters yesterday in a bid to end a week-long political crisis that has rattled the restive nuclear-armed nation.
Thousands of followers of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri are demonstrating outside the parliament building, trying to force Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from office.
Khan and Qadri say last year’s general election that swept Sharif to power by a landslide was rigged, and they are demanding his resignation.
The showdown has added to the sense of instability in a country that has had three military coups since its creation in 1947 and which is struggling with a homegrown Taliban insurgency, a crippling power crisis and a sluggish economy.
There had been few signs the protest leaders were prepared to back down, but yesterday evening a cross-party delegation held an initial meeting with members of Qadri’s team to try to resolve the standoff.
Khurram Nawaz Gandapur, a senior leader in Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) movement, said they wanted ‘meaningful talks’. Minister for states and frontier regions Abdul Qadir Baloch, part of the government team, said he was hopeful for a ‘positive result from the negotiations’.
Earlier Qadri repeated his demand for Sharif to quit and install a ‘national government’, and ordered his followers to stop lawmakers leaving a national assembly sitting called to debate the crisis.
His activists occupied the main entrances to parliament but MPs left the building by a back entrance without incident.
The Supreme Court, which has played an influential role in Pakistani politics in recent years, ordered Khan and Qadri to appear today to explain their protests, a court official said.
The ruling came after petitions urging the court to restrain Khan and Qadri from ‘making illegal and unconstitutional demands’, Kamran Murtaza, a senior lawyer said.
There had been fears the protesters’ advance on parliament in the early hours of yesterday could trigger clashes, but riot police and other security forces looked on without intervening.
The crisis has raised fears that Pakistan’s fragile democracy could be under threat of another military intervention.
Rumours have abounded that elements within the influential military have been behind Khan and Qadri’s moves, though the cleric and the interior minister have adamantly denied this.
On Tuesday Khan had threatened to break into Sharif’s official residence unless he resigned, though Qadri distanced himself from the call, saying his supporters would maintain a peaceful sit-in until the premier stepped down.
Early yesterday the army’s chief spokesman called for dialogue.
“Situation requires patience, wisdom and sagacity from all stakeholders to resolve prevailing impasse through meaningful dialogue in larger national and public interest,” General Asim Bajwa said through a recognised Twitter account.
Sharif has a history of testy relations with the military -- his second term as prime minister ended abruptly in 1999 when then-army chief Pervez Musharraf seized power in a coup.
His government is thought to have angered the military further by pursuing criminal cases against Musharraf dating back to his 1999-2008 rule, including treason charges.
Military analyst Ayesha Siddiqui warned that the situation was very precarious.
“From the military perspective, they have tried and tested Nawaz Sharif a third time and they feel disappointed. Why would they let him be?” she said.
But Hamid Gul, the former head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, said that despite the military’s differences with Sharif, he thought they were unwilling to get involved.
“They (Khan and Qadri) are trying to drag the army into it, to pull the army, but the army is very reluctant,” Gul said, adding that the crisis would inevitably weaken Sharif.
“If Nawaz wants to stay in power he has no choice” but to listen to the army, Gul said.
The United States, Britain and the European Union have all voiced support for Pakistani democracy and urged the feuding sides to negotiate a way out of the impasse.
Last year’s election, rated free and credible by international observers, was an important landmark for Pakistani democracy -- the first time one democratically elected government had completed its term and handed over power to another.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party has accused Khan and Qadri of trying to derail democracy.