Asia

Pakistan protests: Nawaz Sharif cornered

Supporters of Pakistani Muslim cleric Tahirul Qadri and opposition politician Imran Khan, clashes with police during an anti-government protest in Islamabad, Pakistan, 01 September 2014. Image copyright EPA
Image caption A relatively small number of demonstrators have the democratically elected government cornered

Pakistan's political crisis has become increasingly farcical in the past few days - but it remains deadly serious.

The mess has been growing since Saturday. Several hundred protesters armed with sticks and stones have been fighting running battles with the police on Constitution Avenue, a high-security zone which is the seat of power and houses all the important state buildings.

Thousands of policemen deployed to keep the violence in check have been telling reporters of their frustration at not being allowed to use more force against the demonstrators.

Most of them had been stationed in the capital for well over two weeks when the protesters forced their way into the central district and staged a sit-in.

On Saturday night, protesters overran parts of Parliament House after smashing the outer fence of the building with the help of a truck.

On Monday, a group broke into the building of state broadcaster PTV, taking it off air for about 15 minutes.

Pakistan powerful military has urged the government to resolve the crisis by peaceful means. Army chief Gen Raheel Sharif and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met again on Monday afternoon.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The role and motives of the army are in question as usual

Since the crisis started nearly three weeks ago, the two have met at least five times, but the political mess has continued to get worse.

The crisis also has a farcical side.

It was sparked by what many call a "joint venture" between former cricketer Imran Khan and a Sufi cleric Tahirul Qadri.

The two leaders want the government to resign even though it won a landslide victory in the May 2013 elections.

They say that last year's elections were rigged, and that they don't expect fair elections in future because the entire system is corrupt and will bring the same people back to power.

They are demanding political and electoral reforms before new elections are held.

These demands have no legal basis, leading most politicians and analysts to conclude that the ousting of the government would set a dangerous precedent and derail the country's fledgling democracy.

This has caused all the major political forces of the country, including those in the opposition, to close ranks. Last week they passed a resolution in parliament urging the prime minister not to resign.

Despite this heavy political tilt in the government's favour, Mr Khan and Mr Qadri have between them managed to paralyse the capital.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Nawaz Sharif won a landslide last year and is refusing to quit

At least two state tours by foreign dignitaries - the presidents of Maldives and Sri Lanka - have had to be cancelled, and there is an air of uncertainty about the economically crucial state visit by the Chinese president, due next week.

The question is, why has a popularly elected government, which has the support of the opposition, failed to clear the protesters from Constitution Avenue?

At least two rounds of talks between the government and the protest leaders failed when the latter insisted on the prime minister's resignation as a precondition.

They were willing for a "mediatory" role by the army chief, but Gen Sharif backed out when the news of his involvement in talks was broken to the media by Mr Qadri.

Government officials say they are exercising restraint because they do not want to "grant Mr Khan and Mr Qadri their wish to have a few dead bodies to play politics on".

But the question as to what other options the government has points into areas which are more dangerous than farcical.

Barring one or two, most analysts are unanimous that protests by Mr Khan and Mr Qadri are propped up by some elements within Pakistan's security establishment.

These elements used a number of tactics to keep the previous PPP government "under their thumb".

The present government, the first in Pakistan to have taken power after a peaceful democratic transition, has had a number of issues with the military.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Demonstrators have been taking part in a sit-in in the capital for over two weeks

It put the military in an embarrassing position when it brought a treason case against one of its former chiefs, Gen Pervez Musharraf.

It was later seen to side with Geo TV in its bruising battle with the ISI intelligence service, which the channel accused of carrying out a gun attack on one of its talk-show hosts in April.

Pakistan's military has directly or indirectly controlled much of the country's political decision-making since its independence in 1947, particularly in foreign and security policy.

The military also has a huge business empire the success of which, according to experts, is largely because of the military's domination of political power.

Analysts believe that in the current crisis, the government has passed into a state of inertia because it fears that elements in the security establishment are waiting for it to make a mistake.

The worst case scenario, according to analysts, would be that Prime Minister Sharif is forced to resign. Most say however that there is a very remote possibility of this happening.

A more likely outcome, they say, would be some kind of a compromise on the fate of General Musharraf, Mr Sharif's peace overtures to India - and not getting ahead of the military in matters concerning post-Nato Afghanistan.

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