Interior minister claims ISPR statement on P.M. asking Army chief to ‘facilitate’ resolution to protests supports his stance.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said on Friday the intransigence of anti-government protesters had left no alternative but mediation by the Army to end a two-week political crisis that has shaken the nation.
Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif on Thursday held talks with populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan in the standoff between the government and protesters. The move has raised fears of increased military dominance over the civilian government in a country ruled for more than half its life by the Army.
Thousands of demonstrators led by Khan and Qadri are camped outside Parliament in Islamabad demanding the prime minister step down. More than a week of government efforts to negotiate an end to the standoff made little headway, with Khan adamant the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must resign. Qadri, meanwhile, is demanding the registration of a criminal case against Sharif, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, and 19 others, over the deaths of at least 14 Pakistani Awami Tehreek activists in June during a clash with police in Lahore. He has also demanded the resignations of both Sharif brothers.
Late on Thursday, Qadri and Khan announced Gen. Sharif would mediate and later the Army chief met them both, according to a military spokesman.
On Friday, Nisar told Parliament the protesters’ unwillingness to trust anyone had left no alternative but Army mediation. “Again and again they said they only trust the Army and will only have talks through the Army,” he said. “When a group or two parties has no faith in the judiciary, the opposition, lawyers or civil society and has no confidence in anybody, what option remains for the government?”
A furious row blew up almost immediately over the chain of events leading up to the army stepping in. The interior minister and P.M. told Parliament the request for military help had come from the camps of Khan and Qadri. Sharif said he had not asked for the intervention, but was told by a military officer that Khan and Qadri had said they wanted to meet the Army chief. “I … told him that if they wanted to meet and if they have requested to meet, then the Army chief must meet them,” he said.
Qadri, who is usually based in Canada, hotly denied this and demanded Sharif resign. “This is a lie, a lie, a lie. This request has been made by the prime minister and the government and I reject his claim,” he told supporters.
Meanwhile, chief military spokesman Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa said on his official Twitter account: “The Chief of Army Staff was asked by the government to play a facilitative role for resolution of the current impasse, in yesterday’s meeting at P.M. House.”
The interior minister late Friday said that the military statement endorsed the government’s stance in the crisis. “Role of facilitation by Army is within constitutional ambit and the statement endorses our stance,” he said. He claimed the government had asked for “facilitation” while the protesters had demanded the Army be part of the mediation process.
Khan, the head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, which scored its best-ever result in last year’s elections, once again insisted he would not leave the protest until the prime minister quits. A fresh round of talks between Khan’s party and government broke down, while talks with Qadri were in progress.
Khan alleges the 2013 general elections that swept Sharif to power in a landslide was rigged, though international observers said the vote was largely free and fair. Qadri has demanded wholesale changes to Pakistan’s political system and called for an interim “unity government” while they are implemented.
The leaders have drawn thousands to the streets in Islamabad, though support has dwindled over the last week and their call has not mobilized a mass movement in the country of 180 million people. But the standoff has weakened Sharif, and led a number of observers to say the military would use the crisis to reclaim a hold over its traditional spheres of influence in Pakistani politics—defense and foreign policy.
The Army is widely viewed as hostile toward Sharif’s efforts to normalize ties with India—the perceived threat from Pakistan’s neighbor is a big part of the justification for the military’s large budget and prominent role.
Sharif is also thought to have angered the military by pursuing treason charges against former chief General Pervez Musharraf. There is speculation that the military will use the current crisis to get Sharif to let Musharraf—who deposed the P.M. in a coup in 1999—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 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.