1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Negotiations, at last

Shamil ShamsAugust 20, 2014

Pakistani opposition has agreed to hold talks with the government but vowed to continue with a mass sit-in outside parliament until PM Nawaz Sharif steps down. Protesters in Islamabad claim the 2013 vote was rigged.

Imran Khan Parteivorsitzender PTI Pakistan

Pakistan's powerful army issued a statement last night (August 19) that anti-government protesters and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's administration must find a way out of the political impasse that has gripped the country for the past six days. Political commentators interpreted it as a signal to opposition leaders - cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Pakistani-Canadian cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri - that the military generals would not want to take sides in the conflict.

On Wednesday, August 20, pro-government politicians held informal talks with both Khan and Qadri. After some reluctance, both opposition leaders budged in on their demand that they would not negotiate with the government until Sharif tendered his resignation.

A day earlier, protesters had marched into the heavily guarded government zone in Islamabad aiming to oust PM Nawaz Sharif without much resistance from security forces. The government had deployed thousands of policemen and paramilitary troops to guard the capital's "Red Zone" - an area home to key government ministries, the parliament building, the PM residence, and a number of western embassies. Independent sources claim there are currently up to 20,000 protesters in the capital city.

Khan, who is leading the protest, reiterated his warning to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Tuesday, August 19, that he should step down or his followers would storm the parliament. Qadri led a separate protest rally and his supporters have surrounded the parliament building. Both Khan and Qadri claim the May 2013 elections, in which PM Sharif's Muslim League party won a landslide victory, were rigged, and that the government is corrupt and incompetent.

Pakistani supporters of Canada-based preacher Tahir-ul-Qadri gesture and cheer as party songs play during an anti-government march in Islamabad on August 17, 2014 (Photo: ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)
The government vowed to deal with protesters strictly if they crossed the barriersImage: ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

The anti-Sharif rallies, which kicked off Thursday, August 14, and coincided with the country's Independence Day, are likely to continue as protesters say they won't leave Islamabad until Sharif tenders his resignation.

Khan's Movement for Justice (PTI) party, which is the third largest in parliament, had earlier announced that its lawmakers would resign from the National Assembly - the lower house of parliament - and also withdraw from three out of four provincial assemblies. The 62-year-old politician also called for a country-wide "civil disobedience" movement against the incumbent government.

Failed reconciliation attempts

On Tuesday, August 19, Prime Minister Sharif held a one-on-one meeting with the country's powerful army chief, Raheel Sharif to discuss the political situation in Islamabad.

Sharif's government also formed a parliamentary committee to convince Khan and Qadri to resolve the issue through dialogue. However, Khan spurned the offer and told the media that negotiations with the government would not take place until Sharif stepped down.

Qadri's self-appointed "People's Parliament" also vowed to continue the protests.

"Do you want to continue with the sit-in here or march on the parliament?" Qadri asked his followers on Tuesday. The answer was a unanimous "no."

"Is Sharif's government lawful? Should he continue to stay as prime minister?" the firebrand cleric asked the protesters again. The response from the crowd once again was a "no."

Qadri demanded that a caretaker government replace Sharif's administration, undertake electoral reforms and hold fresh elections.

The possibility of military intervention

Shamoon Hashmi, an Islamabad-based civil society activist and TV anchor, criticized both opposition politicians and said the objectives of the march were unclear: "There is confusion all over. Khan demanded reforms in the electoral system, and that a commission be formed to investigate alleged rigging; the PM accepted both demands. So what does the opposition want now?" Hashmi asked.

Hashmi says that even if Sharif left his post as demanded by Khan and Qadri, he and the leader of the opposition in parliament - a member of former president Asif Ali Zardari's PPP party - would have to agree on a caretaker government. "Do Khan and Qadri hope there will be a supra-constitutional system? How can that be democratic?" the activist told DW.

Pakistani soldiers ride in a vehicle as they patrol in a 'red zone' area of Islamabad on August 13, 2014, ahead of the country independence day and proposed protest marches by opposition parties against government (Photo: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)
Clashes between soldiers and protesters can be embarrassing for army generalsImage: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

And that's when many in the nuclear-armed Islamic republic question the motives of the march. A number of pro-democracy activists believe the protest rallies have the backing of Pakistan's ubiquitous army. Despite the fact that both Khan and Qadri have repeatedly said that they will not support a military intervention, Pakistanis fear a coup-in-making.

The military is wary of Sharif's cordial moves towards the country's regional arch-rival India. The PM and the army are also not on the same page over the Islamic republic's Afghanistan policy, and more so on the future of the detained former military chief and ex-president, Pervez Musharraf.

"I don't think Pakistan's military has any desire to be directly saddled with the unprecedented challenges the government faces now; it much prefers to influence matters from behind the scenes. In other words, the time isn't right for the military to take over," said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, in a DW interview.

But many in the Islamic republic think that if things get out of control, the reluctant army might have to step in.