After 15 months of relative stability, Pakistan is heading for chaos again

Anger at last year's election result is fuelling two massive protests this week

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The talk is of hundreds of thousands of people. One million. Perhaps even more.

The authorities of Pakistan are readying themselves for what could be a huge demonstration of anti-government feeling. Two separate protests, similar in their aims and ambition, are set to besiege Islamabad tomorrow, Pakistan’s Independence Day.

One of the protests will he headed by the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. The other demonstrators are supporters of cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, who runs Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) and a religious organisation, Minhaj-ul-Quran.

Both groups are demanding that the government of Nawaz Sharif stand down immediately. They claim the victory Mr Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won in last year’s election was made possible only by widespread electoral corruption. The win was illegitimate, they claim.

It has been 15 months since the 64-year-old Mr Sharif was elected to his third term as Pakistan’s prime minister. During the campaign it was clear he was being pushed hard, especially in the urban areas of Punjab, by Mr Khan and the PTI.

But for all of Mr Khan’s charisma and his appeal to young people that Pakistan required change, not old faces, the PML-N was better organised and ensured its supporters went out and cast their votes on polling day. While there were some irregularities, most domestic and international observers believed the election was fair.

Mr Khan cannot accept it. While initially saying his party would acknowledge the result, and getting on with the task of running the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) where he won, he pressed the election authorities and the government to launch an investigation in a sample of constituencies to see if there had been rigging. He says Mr Sharif and the government have failed to do so.

Speaking from Pakistan, Saifullah Niazi, a senior PTI official, said: “We want electoral reforms and we then want new elections. No election reforms can take place while the government is in place. There would have to have a caretaker government – through the Supreme Court.”

 

Supporters of Mr Qadri are equally adamant that the status quo cannot continue. The cleric, who spends most of his time in Canada, has called for a “people’s revolution” and has also demanded Mr Sharif’s government stand down.

Unlike Mr Khan, Mr Qadri told his supporters last year to boycott the election, saying they could not hope for a fair outcome. He insists that nothing has changed.

Qazi Faiz-ul-Islam, a spokesman for Mr Qadri’s PAT, said: “We are peaceful people. We are unarmed. But our morale is very high. The Sharifs should step down. Their days are numbered.”

Neither Mr Khan nor Mr Qadri are strangers to the drama of such protests and marches. In October 2012, Mr Khan tried to lead a “long march” to Waziristan to highlight US drone strikes.

Meanwhile, in January 2013, parts of Islamabad were brought to a halt when Mr Qadri brought tens of thousands of supporters to the capital and camped out close to the parliament building. Many of the largely urban protesters were women. The demands for clean government echoed those of protesters in neighbouring India and elsewhere.

From a constitutional point of view, Mr Sharif argues that he has right on his side and that he can take whatever steps are required to protect the capital. The protesters, similarly, claim they are within their constitutional right to demonstrate.

But as is often the case in Pakistan, the issue may be more opaque. Government officials have claimed both Mr Qadri and Mr Khan are being supported by the powerful military and intelligence establishment, with whom Mr Sharif has long had a difficult relationship. (He was forced out in a coup in 1999 led by Gen Pervez Musharraf).

Both Mr Khan and Mr Qadri deny any links to the military. But others have pointed out that the military, displeased with Mr Sharif for allowing a treason trial of Mr Musharraf to proceed, could seek to seize on the situation. The perception that the demonstrators are supported by the army could be as important as the military’s actual backing.

Sixty-eight years since it secured its independence, Pakistan faces a host of problems, including a persistent Islamist militancy, crippling power cuts and uncertainty about the regional fall-out as US troops prepare to leave neighbouring Afghanistan.

Last year’s completion of a full term by a civilian government and the transfer to another civilian government – the first time in Pakistan’s seven decades that this had happened – was broadly welcomed domestically and abroad.

Mr Sharif certainly appears to be taking the threat seriously. Police have effectively barricaded Mr Qadri’s Lahore office and it seems unlikely he will be permitted to lead the demonstrators to Islamabad. There have already been clashes and at least one person was killed.

And last night, a sombre Mr Sharif addressed the nation, his second appeal to the public in as many days. The prime minister listed what he said were the achievements of his government, though he admitted he had not been able to work a miracle.

He added: “We will not allow national decisions to be taken on the streets and roads. We will not permit anyone to spread anarchy.”

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