ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s interior minister yesterday slammed violent anti-government protests as a ‘revolt against the state’ as lawmakers backed beleaguered Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Parliament met for an emergency session after three days of clashes between police and club-wielding demonstrators demanding Sharif’s resignation, which have left three dead and nearly 500 injured.
Sharif has resisted calls for him to go but protest leaders Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri have refused to back down, raising political tensions to fever pitch.
Violence erupted on Saturday when Khan and Qadri ordered their followers to storm the prime minister’s official residence, with protesters throwing rocks at police who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
There were further clashes on Sunday and Monday, when activists armed with bamboo batons briefly seized control of the state broadcaster.
The protests have disrupted life in the normally sleepy capital since August 15 and heaped pressure on Sharif, raising the spectre of military intervention in a country ruled for half its history by the army.
Khan, who leads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) opposition party, claims the May 2013 election that swept Sharif to power in a landslide was rigged. Qadri, a populist cleric, says the current political system is corrupt and must be swept away entirely.
But the movements have not energised much widespread support beyond Khan and Qadri’s core followers.
Opposition leaders used the special session of parliament to voice their support for democracy and reject calls for Sharif to quit -- though some criticised his handling of the crisis.
Aitzaz Ahsan, a senior leader in the main opposition Pakistan People’s Party, said Khan’s allegations of rigging should be investigated properly but the government should not step down.
“The constitution will be seriously violated if Qadri’s lashkar (army) achieves success. This will be a black day for the law and constitution,” he told lawmakers.
Sharif himself did not speak during the session, which will resume today.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said the country should not be held to ransom by a few thousand people.
“This is not a protest or a political gathering. This is a revolt against Pakistan -- this is a revolt against the state institutions,” he told lawmakers.
Khan said his party would meet a delegation led by the head of a religious political party yesterday evening for talks.
He also told supporters that PTI’s 34 lawmakers would attend today’s parliamentary session to ‘go out with a bang’.
Last week Khan said they would all resign their seats, though they have not done so yet.
The powerful military has called for a swift and peaceful political solution but efforts to negotiate a way out have so far failed.
On Monday Javed Hashmi, the president of PTI, claimed Khan had told party leaders the protests were being coordinated by the military.
Both PTI and the military denied Hashmi’s claims but they chimed with the assessment of numerous analysts in recent weeks -- that if the army was not directing the protests, it was certainly using them to erode Sharif’s authority.
Sharif’s relationship with the military has been problematic over the years -- his last term as PM ended in a coup led by then-army chief General Pervez Musharraf in 1999.
Since his election last year Sharif is thought to have angered the military by pursuing treason charges against Musharraf and seeking to warm ties with perennial rival India.
The spectre of military domination by Pakistan’s giant neighbour has long been used as part of the justification for the army’s influence and large budget.
The military is usually treated respectfully in Pakistani media, but two major dailies yesterday published surprisingly forthright editorials criticising its handling of the current crisis.
Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English-language paper, said the army’s failure clearly to support the elected government had destroyed its “carefully constructed veneer of neutrality”.
“Staggeringly, the army has ‘advised’ the government not to use force against violent protesters,” Dawn wrote.
“It’s as if the army is unaware -- rather, unwilling -- to acknowledge the constitutional scheme of things: it is the government that is supposed to give orders to the army, not the other way around.”
The Nation said military commanders were “issuing public advisories to the elected government, which should be simply unacceptable”.
With thousands of people camping out there for the past fortnight, the area in front of parliament is strewn with rubbish and human waste.