Tens of thousands of Pakistanis joined opposition leader Imran Khan as he traveled from Lahore to the capital to oust Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over fraud allegations in an election 15 months ago.
Khan’s supporters waved red-and-green party flags and danced to music in open trucks along the journey of more than 250 kilometers (155 miles). Police said as many as 45,000 people joined Khan and cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, while their camps put the figure at 125,000.
“Imran Khan will place his list of demands, or demand, once we are in the capital,” Naeemul Haque, Khan’s chief of staff, said by phone, adding that they would probably reach Islamabad at some time tomorrow. “As of now we cannot say what those demands are.”
The rally is the biggest challenge yet to Sharif as he seeks to revive Pakistan’s economy and end a Taliban insurgency that has killed more than 55,000 people since 2001. Stocks and the rupee have fallen this week on concerns that the protest will turn violent or trigger a coup.
“He’s in a win-win situation,” Ikram Sehgal, a former military official and chairman of the Pathfinder Group, one of Pakistan’s largest security companies, said of Khan. “If they stop him, he’s won. If they don’t stop him, he’s won.”
Sharif allowed Khan and Qadri, who also leads a political party and has pushed for cleaner elections, to continue with the march today after receiving assurances no violence would take place, Ishrat Ul Ebad Khan, governor of Sindh province, told Samaa TV.
More than a dozen flights scheduled to arrive or leave Islamabad have been canceled, including those by Pakistan International Airlines Corp. and China Southern Airlines Co. Ltd., according to the website of the capital’s airport. Police blocked roads and cut mobile-phone service ahead of the rally, while a law minister in Sharif’s home province of Punjab warned that gunmen may attack protesters.
Pakistan’s benchmark KSE 100 Index, up 13 percent this year, rose 0.7 percent yesterday, the second day of gains after its biggest retreat in five years. The Pakistan rupee fell as much as 0.8 percent to the lowest level in about five months. Markets are closed today for a holiday marking the 67th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence from Britain.
“On the one hand we have the military operation in the north and on the other development projects to take the nation forward, and yet some people are talking about freedom marches and revolution marches,” Sharif said today at the reconstructed house of the country’s late founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, whose house was attacked and destroyed in an arson attack last year. Earlier this week, Sharif said he would serve out his five-year term, which ends in 2018.
Khan, a 61-year-old former cricket star whose party controls about a tenth of parliamentary seats, has said election authorities unjustly dismissed his complaints of fraud in last year’s vote. He has rejected Sharif’s plans for a commission to probe fraud claims.
Khan told Express News television yesterday that hundreds of thousands of fake ballot papers were manufactured at private printing presses and distributed two days before the election. As many as 70,000 ballots couldn’t be verified, he said, and he rejected findings from special election courts that threw out his complaints because of a lack of evidence.
“Freedom can only be won thru struggle, it is not handed on a platter,” Khan said in a message on Twitter. “Today is decisive to liberate ourselves.”
Authorities in Islamabad have blocked roads with containers, barbed wire and large craters. Some 18,000 law enforcement officials will be on duty, according to Sultan Azam Temuri, a spokesman for Islamabad police, including police officers and paramilitary troops from other provinces.
Khan’s party had as many as 20,000 supporters and workers in the caravan, while Qadri had another 25,000, Nayab Haider, a spokesman for Lahore police, said by phone. Haque in Khan’s camp said 100,000 people joined him, while Qadri spokesman Shahid Mursaleen put his supporters at 25,000.
“We should be reaching Islamabad in a couple of days,” Mursaleen said by phone. “We will protest by sitting on the road in the capital and we will not get up until our basic demand for the removal of Nawaz Sharif is met, no matter how many days it takes.”
Tahir-ul-Qadri, a cleric whose Pakistan Awami Tehreek political party has no representation in parliament, led tens of thousands of people in demonstrations before last year’s election to demand changes to the electoral system. More than 20 of Qadri’s supporters have died in clashes with police since June and thousands more have been detained, Hafeez Chaudhry, deputy secretary of information, said by phone
Sharif’s party won 47 percent of seats in the last election. It now controls 55 percent of positions in the 342-member National Assembly after winning the support of independent candidates and receiving allocations reserved for minorities and women.
Sharif, 64, who was ousted in a 1999 coup, has sought to revive Pakistan’s finances through a privatization drive and cutting power subsidies since the election that brought him back to office in May 2013.
Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said in an Aug. 12 interview that ties with the military were “cordial and fine.” He dismissed concerns that the army would seize power for the fourth time since 1947.
“There is no current appetite to create rumbling and come out of the barracks,” Burzine Waghmar, an academic at the Centre for the Study of Pakistan at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said by phone. The army, he said, sees “civilians with their usual bickering, and so let them carry on so long as it’s not terribly serious.”