Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab, met with the army chief today in Rawalpindi, the garrison city next to the capital of Islamabad, said the 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.
Separately, the government sent a team led by Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique to negotiate with religious cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri to end the standoff, state-run Radio Pakistan reported on its website.
Thousands of anti-government protesters led by opposition leader Imran Khan and Qadri are camped outside of the parliament building in Islamabad demanding that Sharif resign. The group says that Sharif has failed to properly investigate complaints of fraud in a national election last year.
A confrontation with security forces would escalate an attempt by Khan and Qadri to oust Sharif’s 15-month-old government through a show of force on Pakistan’s streets. The demonstration threatens Sharif’s efforts to revive Pakistan’s finances and fight a Taliban insurgency that has killed more than 55,000 people since 2001.
The benchmark KSE100 Index (KSE100), which lost 1.6 percent last week, rose 0.1 percent today, reversing early losses. The rupee declined about 0.5 percent to its lowest level since March 10.
“The current situation will continue to haunt investor sentiment,” Qasim Anwar, an equity dealer at AKD Securities in Karachi, said in an e-mail.
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.
The army deployed troops into the red zone after Sharif’s administration authorized them to protect the area. About 350 troops were deployed to the area, bringing the total to 700, according to a senior army officer who asked not to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak with the media.
Sharif has vowed to finish out his five-year term that ends in 2018 while offering to probe allegations of election fraud. He refrained from ordering the use of force on protesters because women and children were on the front lines, according to a Twitter post by Maryam Nawaz Sharif, his daughter.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan yesterday said the army wasn’t behind the political standoff and repeated a call for talks. Sharif attended a parliament session today.
“Let me assure you we are not stubborn,” Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a former foreign minister and a member of Khan’s party, said by phone early today. “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.”
Khan and Qadri set up protest camps in Islamabad last week in a bid to oust Sharif over allegations that he rigged last year’s election and benefited personally from government contracts. Supporters have slept on the streets over the past few days, triggering concerns the military would seize power.
Khan, a former cricket star whose party was the third biggest in parliament, called on supporters of his to remain peaceful and warned police against stopping them. He said he needed to act now because authorities dismissed his complaints of fraud in last year’s election because of a lack of evidence.
Khan 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.
“If they occupy a major building in the red zone then that will be something very serious,” Umbreen Javaid, head of the political science department at the University of Punjab, said by phone from Lahore.
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