ISLAMABAD – Pakistan opposition leader Imran Khan said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must resign before negotiations to end a week-long political standoff can begin, even as the nation’s powerful army called for talks.
“Our doors are open for dialogue, but only after Nawaz Sharif resigns,” Khan told a crowd of supporters in front of the parliament building in Islamabad. “I am here and I am willing to wait for as long as possible. Justice is simply not possible in Pakistan while Nawaz Sharif is prime minister.”
Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif called for “meaningful” talks in a meeting yesterday with Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab and the prime minister’s brother, according to a senior military officer, who asked not to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak with the media. The prime minister’s family and the army chief aren’t related.
The demonstrations threaten to end Sharif’s tenure 15 months after winning an election that marked the first democratic transfer of power in Pakistan’s 67-year history. The turmoil has jeopardized a partially disbursed loan from the International Monetary Fund and distracted military leaders as they battle Taliban insurgents on the Afghan border.
Pressure on Khan
“Any hint that there is progress on talks is positive for markets, even if it looks like the talks may take seven or 14 days,” Faisal Bilwani, head of equities at Elixir Securities in Karachi, said in a phone interview. “Pressure from within Khan’s party will probably force him to start talks. There is also talk that the army has told Khan that he should start discussions with the government.”
The discord may enhance the role of Pakistan’s military, which has ruled the nuclear-armed country of 196 million people for more than half of its history. Pakistan, which has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid to fight Taliban and al-Qaeda militants, has also been accused of supporting terrorism to suit its aims in neighboring Afghanistan and India.
Sharif’s decision this week to give the military responsibility for handling the protests may be perceived as a sign of weakness, longtime U.S. defense intelligence analyst John McCreary wrote in his NightWatch newsletter, published by KGS Government Solutions, Inc.
“The Army leadership will resent it and now has troops deployed in the capital to enable it to overthrow the government by simply siding with the opposition,” McCreary wrote. “Sharif seems particularly prone to blunder in handling the Army.”
Sharif, 64, has differed with the military over talks with Taliban insurgents, and pursued a case against former army chief Pervez Musharraf, who deposed him in a 1999 coup. Maryam Nawaz Sharif, his daughter, said late yesterday the prime minister wasn’t going anywhere.
“U can spend your whole life in the container but Nawaz Sharif will NOT resign,” she said in a Twitter message, responding to Khan.
Thousands of anti-government protesters led by Khan, 61, and cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri are camped outside of the parliament building in Islamabad. The group says that Sharif has failed to properly investigate complaints of fraud in a national election last year.
Qadri Talks Start
The government sent a team led by Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal to negotiate with Qadri to end the standoff, television channels including Ary News reported.
Khan, a former cricket star whose party was the third biggest in parliament, has sought to increase pressure on Sharif over the past few days, calling on supporters to stop paying tax and announcing that all the party’s lawmakers elected in last year’s national vote would resign. The party is for now retaining power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the one province it controls.
“Let me assure you we are not stubborn,” Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a former foreign minister and a member of Khan’s party, said by phone yesterday. “We are open to dialogue provided we see seriousness. So far, the government has not exhibited seriousness, and they are playing games in the name of dialogue.”