ISLAMABAD – Pakistan opposition leader Imran Khansuspended talks with the government and repeated his demand that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resign, extending a week-long political standoff over allegations of vote-rigging in last year’s election.
“Pakistanis in every city should come out onto the streets,” Khan told a crowd of supporters in front of the parliament building in Islamabad today. “This is a defining moment in the history of Pakistan”
Talks were called off today because the government is planning a crackdown on protesters, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, a senior leader in Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf told reporters. Party members delivered demands to the government last night.
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 Fundand distracted military leaders as they battle Taliban insurgents on the Afghan border.
The inspector general of police for Islamabad was removed today, state-run television reported, without giving details. Khan said he was removed for refusing to support a crackdown. Unconstitutional demands won’t be met and police have not pressured protesters, Information Minister Pervez Rasheed told reporters in Islamabad, according to state-run Pakistan Television.
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.
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.
‘Prone to Blunder’
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.
The government’s negotiating team included Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal and Abdul Qadir Baloch, minister for states and frontier regions, according to Mohiyuddin Wani, Sharif’s spokesman.
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,” Qureshi, a former foreign minister and a member of Khan’s negotiating team, 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.”