Defiant prime minister says he will not allow ongoing protests derail his government’s plans to revive Pakistan’s economy.
Embattled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said on Wednesday he would not cave in to protests demanding his resignation, striking a defiant note in his first major speech since the crisis erupted two weeks ago.
The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) chief told Parliament his government would not be thrown off course by the demonstrations led by opposition politician and former cricketer Imran Khan and populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri.
Thousands of Khan and Qadri’s followers have been camped outside Parliament for the past week demanding Sharif quit, claiming the elections that swept him to power last year were rigged. The crisis has rattled Sharif’s government 15 months into a five-year term and prompted rumors the Army may intervene to resolve matters—and in doing so effectively put the elected government under its thumb.
In a country that has seen three military coups, the threat of Army intervention casts a shadow over virtually every moment of political crisis. But Sharif told lawmakers his PMLN government would stay the course. “We are not going to be diverted by these things,” he said. “The journey for the supremacy of Constitution and law in Pakistan will continue with full determination and, God willing, there will not be any interruption in it.”
He said the plan to revive the ailing economy through major development and infrastructure projects—a key plank of the PMLN manifesto—would continue.
Khan has alleged massive cheating in the May 2013 poll, though international observers said the vote was largely free and fair.
Shortly before Khan and Qadri began their protests with “long marches” from Lahore, Sharif announced a judicial commission to investigate rigging claims in some seats, but Khan rejected the offer. The government has also set up a parliamentary committee to consider electoral reform and Sharif urged Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to support it.
“We want to bring reforms in all areas as we have to think about the future generation and find ways to take the country towards the destination of progress,” he added.
The protests in Islamabad have so far been peaceful, with security forces taking a hands-off approach to the demonstrations. But both protest leaders have stoked fears of an imminent violent crackdown, with Qadri telling supporters he was ready to be “martyred” as his followers dressed in funeral shrouds during a rally on Wednesday.
Efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis have made little headway, with Khan sticking to his hardline demand that Sharif must quit.
Railways minister Khawaja Saad Rafique told Parliament Wednesday that government was prepared to meet all of the PTI’s demands to investigate rigging barring the prime minister’s resignation. “They said they have suspicions of rigging, we told them that we would constitute a judicial commission and if rigging is proved, not only the prime minister but all of us will resign,” he said. “But they are insisting that the prime minister should resign even if it’s for 30 days. Is this the way this country of 180 million people should be governed?”
On Tuesday Sharif met Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif and issued a statement saying they had agreed on the need to end the standoff “expeditiously.” Neither protest movement has mobilized mass support beyond its core followers, and opposition parties have shunned Khan’s call to unseat the government and begin a campaign of civil disobedience.