Pakistan’s Army Heads Meet After Protests Turn Deadly
(Corrects Musharraf’s designation in 20th paragraph.)
Pakistan’s military leaders asked political parties to contain a deepening crisis after more than two weeks of anti-government protests turned deadly.
Three people were killed and about 500 injured in clashes between Pakistani police and protesters in Islamabad yesterday as demonstrators moved toward the home of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in an increasingly violent standoff over the legitimacy of elections last year. Military leaders in a meeting yesterday reiterated their support for democracy and said the situation should be resolved “without wasting any time and without recourse to violent means.”
The violence raised the stakes for army chief General Raheel Sharif, who agreed on Aug. 28 to try to resolve the standoff between opposition politician Imran Khan and cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, who accuse the prime minister of massive voter fraud and organized the protests to try to force his resignation. The crisis threatens to distract the military from its fight against Taliban insurgents in the north and comes at a time of rising border skirmishes with India.
“If there was a veiled threat before, it is now more severe because of this announcement,” Shaikh Mutahir Ahmed, chairman of the international relations department at the University of Karachi, said by phone. “The government is under a lot of pressure to diffuse tensions.”
The prime minister is not related to the army general.
Khan and Qadri decided to move the protests toward Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s house after holding more than two weeks of demonstrations outside the nearby parliament. The demonstrations turned violent after protesters tried to surge past barricades around Sharif’s residence, prompting police to fire tear gas and rubber bullets.
“We have the authority to fight and protect all the important installations of the city,” Sultan Azam Temuri, a spokesman for the Islamabad police said in an interview. “We engaged with them, and they attacked us with salt and red-chilli powder water filled in bottles. These people were definitely prepared.”
The unrest, which threatens to jeopardize a partially disbursed International Monetary Fund loan to the country, spurred a 5.8 percent retreat in the KSE 100 stock index in August, the biggest monthly drop in three years.
The index rose 2.9 percent on Aug. 29, the largest advance in almost three years, after General Sharif announced he would intervene. The army has ruled the nation for more than half its history and previously ousted Nawaz Sharif in a coup in 1999.
“When the army steps in, you get a comfort factor,” said Faisal Bilwani, the head of equities at Elixir Securities in Karachi. “The fear of unrest and violence has subsided significantly now.”
That relief was short-lived as the demonstrations descended into violence days after the announcement.
“The violence erupted because of miscalculations on both sides,” said Professor Hasan Askari Rizvi, a defense and political analyst. “Protesters thought that the police would not stop them and they would reach the entrance of the prime minister’s house; and on the other hand, police overreacted and thought the protest could be taken care of within 45 minutes if full force is used.”
In a bid to diffuse the situation, Sharif agreed to an investigation into the allegations of voter fraud. Should the probe determine that the prime minister or his brother Shahbaz, the chief minister of Punjab province, was involved in vote rigging, they will resign, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, who is involved in talks with the opposition, said on Aug. 29. Sharif won’t step down before such a finding, he said.
“I will not leave until I have Nawaz Sharif’s resignation and his government removed,” Khan said while addressing supporters yesterday. “We will not negotiate anymore. We only want our demands met.”
Demands from protesters that the country’s leader quit immediately are “unreasonable,” Dar told reporters on Aug. 29. “All sides agree to a judicial commission.” Prime Minister Sharif said there was “no question of resignation,” according to a statement from his office on Aug. 30.
The government is still keen to negotiate with both parties, planning minister Ahsan Iqbal said on Samaa television channel.
Khan called for anti-government protests in Karachi, Lahore, Multan and Faisalabad on Aug. 30 in an effort to widen the scope of the demonstration beyond the several thousand people that have been camped in front of the national parliament building in Islamabad.
Should the military successfully mediate a resolution it may gain a greater voice in foreign policy decision-making, according to T.V. Paul, a professor of international relations at McGill University in Montreal and the author of “The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World.”
“The Pakistani military doesn’t want to rule directly at this point, but they wouldn’t mind having more control over Sharif, in particular on India, Afghanistan and the Taliban,” Paul said by phone on Aug. 29. “Veto power is what they want.”
Sharif’s relations with the military have been strained as he seeks to improve ties with India and backs treason charges against former President Pervez Musharraf, the man who overthrew him. Last year’s election marked the first-ever democratic transfer of power in the nuclear-armed country of 196 million people.
The standoff has weakened Sharif’s government, according to Muhammad Imran, who helps oversee 24 billion rupees ($236 million) as chief investment officer of ABL Asset Management Co. in Karachi. “It will be tough making decisions, such as raising power tariffs, as they will face pressure from the opposition,” he said by phone.
Pakistan and the IMF had agreed in September last year to a $6.6 billion loan that’s being disbursed in tranches over 36 months to boost the nation’s depleted currency reserves and help stabilize the economy. As part of the deal, the country will end energy subsidies and curb a budget gap by raising funds through bond and asset sales.
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