LAHORE – Tens of thousands of Pakistanis joined opposition leader Imran Khan as he traveled from Lahore to the capital in an effort to oust Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over allegations of fraud in the general election 15 months ago.
Khan’s supporters waved red-and-green party flags and danced to music in open trucks late yesterday in a slow-moving convoy that is likely to complete the more than 250-kilometer (155-mile) trip to Islamabad today. Police said as many as 45,000 people joined Khan and cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, while their camps put the figure at 125,000 and rising.
“Khan’s success depends how many people come to the streets and how long they stay,” Kamran Bokhari, vice president of Middle Eastern & South Asian Affairs at Stratfor Global Intelligence, said by phone from Toronto yesterday. “His followers are not used to tough conditions and getting beaten up by the police like other parties.”
The demonstration is the biggest challenge yet to Sharif as he seeks to revive Pakistan’s economy and end a Taliban insurgency that has killed more than 55,000 people since 2001. Stocks and the rupee have fallen this week on concerns that the protest will turn violent or trigger a coup.
The protest probably will be the biggest in the country since 2009 when Sharif led thousands seeking the restoration of Supreme Court judges who had been removed from office by previous president Pervez Musharraf, said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based analyst who formerly taught at Columbia University in New York.
Sharif, 64, allowed Khan and Qadri, who also leads a political party and has pushed for cleaner elections, to continue with the marchyesterday after receiving assurances no violence would take place, Ishrat Ul Ebad Khan, governor of Sindh province, told Samaa TV.
The convoy began moving toward Islamabad yesterday afternoon and only had covered about 3 kilometers in its first five hours. Protesters were traveling on the historic Grand Trunk Road between the two cities rather than the main motorway in order to make it easier for others to join.
“Our workers and supporters will not sleep,” said Khan party spokesman Dawa Khan. “They will continue to travel throughout the night so we can reach Islamabad without a break.”
Khan will present his demands, or demand, once the rally reaches the capital, Naeemul Haque, Khan’s chief of staff, said by phone yesterday. “As of now, we cannot say what those demands are.”
More than a dozen flights scheduled to arrive or leave Islamabad were canceled yesterday, including those by Pakistan International Airlines Corp. and China Southern Airlines Co. Ltd., according to the website of the capital’s airport. Police blocked roads and cut mobile-phone service ahead of the rally, while a law minister in Sharif’s home province of Punjab warned that gunmen may attack protesters.
Pakistan’s benchmark KSE 100 Index (KSE100), up 13 percent this year, rose 0.7 percent on Aug. 13, the second day of gains after its biggest retreat in five years. The Pakistan rupee fell as much as 0.8 percent to the lowest level in about five months. Markets were closed yesterday for a holiday marking the 67th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence from Britain.
“On the one hand we have the military operation in the north and on the other development projects to take the nation forward, and yet some people are talking about freedom marches and revolution marches,” Sharif said yesterday. Earlier this week, Sharif said he would serve out his five-year term, which ends in 2018.
Khan, a 61-year-old former cricket star whose party controls about a tenth of parliamentary seats, has said election authorities unjustly dismissed his complaints of fraud in last year’s vote. He has rejected Sharif’s plans for a commission to probe fraud claims.
Khan told Express News television Aug. 13 that hundreds of thousands of fake ballot papers were manufactured at private printing presses and distributed two days before the election. As many as 70,000 ballots couldn’t be verified, he said, and he rejected findings from special election courts that threw out his complaints because of a lack of evidence.
Authorities in Islamabad have blocked roads with containers, barbed wire and large craters. Some 18,000 law enforcement officials will be on duty when the march arrives, according to Sultan Azam Temuri, a spokesman for the Islamabad police, including police officers and paramilitary troops from other provinces.
Khan’s party had as many as 20,000 supporters and workers in the caravan, while Qadri had another 25,000, Nayab Haider, a spokesman for Lahore police, said by phone yesterday. Haque in Khan’s camp said 100,000 people joined him, while Qadri spokesman Shahid Mursaleen put his supporters at 25,000.
“We should be reaching Islamabad in a couple of days,” Mursaleen said by phone. “We will protest by sitting on the road in the capital, and we will not get up until our basic demand for the removal of Nawaz Sharif is met, no matter how many days it takes.”
Tahir-ul-Qadri, a cleric whose Pakistan Awami Tehreek political party has no representation in parliament, led tens of thousands of people in demonstrations before last year’s election to demand changes to the electoral system. More than 20 of Qadri’s supporters have died in clashes with police since June and thousands more have been detained, Hafeez Chaudhry, deputy secretary of information, said by phone