Pakistan’s parliament has thrown its weight behind embattled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as a deepening crisis over violent protests demanding his resignation prompted fears of an army intervention.
But, signalling a possible softening in his position, protest leader Imran Khan said he would meet a conservative Islamist politician who has been trying to mediate between Mr Khan and the government since the start of the confrontation.
Mr Sharif, who enjoys a solid majority in parliament, convened a joint session of the assembly as he seeks to reaffirm that he is fully in control more than two weeks after protests seeking to bring down his government erupted.
His office said parliament would be in session all week to allow all members to express their views. A string of politicians took to the floor during the first day, most of them expressing their resolute support for Mr Sharif.
“This is not a protest, a sit-in or a political gathering. This is a rebellion. It is a rebellion against state institutions. It is a rebellion against the state of Pakistan,” the Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar, told parliament.
“Clear guidance from this parliament would give strength to the police … They are not revolutionaries, they are intruders and terrorists,” he said of the protesters.
Aitzaz Ahsan, of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party said: “The entire parliament is with you.”
Mr Sharif made no remarks. A spokesman said he may speak later in the week after all the MPs made their speeches.
Pakistan has been in turmoil since mid-August when tens of thousands of protesters led by the former cricketer, Mr Khan, and an outspoken cleric, Tahir-ul-Qadri, flooded into Islamabad, refusing to leave unless Mr Sharif resigned.
Convening the week-long parliamentary session appears to be part of Mr Sharif’s attempts to shift the conflict into the political arena.
The protesters accuse the government of corruption and Mr Sharif of rigging last year’s election. They have categorically refused any talks. Mr Sharif denies their accusations and has urged them to come to the negotiating table.
Speaking outside parliament, Mr Khan told supporters he would meet Siraj-ul-Haq, head of the Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami party, later in the day to discuss the situation. But he stopped short of saying he was ready for talks with the government.
“Siraj-ul-Haq is coming with [opposition figures] for talks, we have invited them to come. We will hold talks with them,” Mr Khan said. “The door for talks should always remain open.”