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Army Steps In

by AFP
Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Both Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri have accepted chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif as guarantor.

Pakistan’s army chief was named mediator on Thursday in a fortnight-long political crisis, fuelling speculation that the military could use the protests against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to re-assert its dominance over the civilian government.

Thousands of demonstrators led by populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and politician Imran Khan have been camped outside Parliament in Islamabad for the past week, demanding the prime minister step down. Qadri and Khan announced Gen. Raheel Sharif would mediate in the standoff after the cleric earlier on Thursday rejected the government’s decision to launch a murder investigation that named the prime minister as a suspect, saying it was not enough.

“The Pakistan Army chief has officially asked us if it will be acceptable to the Azadi march if he becomes a mediator and guarantor,” Qadri told followers outside Parliament on Thursday. “Do I have your consent?” he asked his audience, who appeared confused initially and had to be convinced by the cleric to reply in the affirmative. He added the Army had asked for “24 hours for mediation.”

The protests’ other leader, cricket hero turned politician Imran Khan, confirmed the move in a separate speech. “I want to tell you all that I will not disappoint you. The talks have already started,” he added.

The leaders later met with the Army chief, according to a military spokesperson on Twitter.

Khan and Qadri have alleged massive cheating in the May 2013 polls that saw Sharif sweep to power with a huge majority, though international observers said the vote was largely free and fair.

After the talks with the Army chief on Thursday, Khan said he had apprised the general of his party’s position that any independent investigation into vote rigging was not possible as long as Nawaz Sharif remained prime minister. “Our sit-in will not be called off until prime minister Sharif resigns,” he told his supporters at the protest site after the meeting. He also added that the PTI would continue negotiations throughout Friday with both the government and the Army.

The two-week showdown at the heart of the capital has rattled the nuclear-armed state, and shaken Sharif’s government just 15 months into a five-year mandate. As well as wide-ranging calls for political reform, Qadri has demanded police bring murder charges against Sharif, and his brother Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif among 20 others, over the killing of at least 10 of his followers in clashes with police in Lahore.

Earlier, a statement from the prime minister’s office said that orders had been given to register a murder case against senior government officials including Sharif over the killing of Qadri’s followers in an apparent last-ditch effort to resolve the crisis. But Qadri rejected the move, complaining the police had not included the same terror charges that were leveled at the cleric and his supporters over the incident against members of the government.

The two protest movements are not formally allied, but they have gained strength from one another, and Khan’s position would be weakened if Qadri ended his vigil. In a country that has seen three military coups, the threat of Army intervention has cast a shadow over virtually every moment of political crisis.

Sharif met the Army chief to discuss the standoff earlier Thursday, the second such meeting in three days. The two men agreed to “take necessary measures for resumption of stalled process of negotiations for an expeditious resolution in the best national interest,” a statement from the P.M.’s office said.

Analyst Imtiaz Gul said that Sharif was likely to survive the crisis, but would need to make major concessions to the Army in exchange for its support. “It may not necessarily culminate in the resignation of Nawaz Sharif but as of now he seems to have surrendered a lot of political authority. He will emerge as a much weakened prime minister,” said Gul.

The Army is widely viewed as hostile toward Sharif’s efforts to normalize ties with India, and wishes to allow former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who is facing treason charges, to leave the country. A military-negotiated end to the crisis would also lend credence to the view, held by many analysts, that the Army and its intelligence agencies have been providing material aid to the opposition groups.

The government has already set up a judicial commission to investigate the poll rigging claims and a parliamentary committee to examine electoral reform, but neither move has satisfied the protest leaders.

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