Pakistan Defense Minister Dismisses Coup as Protest Looms

Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif dismissed the possibility of a coup as opposition party leader Imran Khan prepares to lead 1 million people in a march through the capital this week.

Relations between the civilian government and military are “cordial and fine,” Asif said in an interview in Islamabad today. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted in a 1999 coup, authorized the military in June to flush out Taliban militants in North Waziristan along the Afghan border.

“I don’t see any possibility of military intervention or any coup,” Asif said. “We have complete consensus, complete agreement on foreign policy.”

The prospect of unrest triggered the biggest fall in Pakistan’s benchmark stock index since 2009 as Sharif warned that demonstrations would threaten economic gains. A Taliban insurgency, power blackouts and political instability have damped economic growth over the past decade, prompting Sharif to seek an International Monetary Fund loan last year.

“We still have four years to go,” Asif said. “We have an agenda to complete.”

The KSE 100 Index, up 12 percent this year, rose 0.8 percent today after its biggest retreat in five years a day earlier. Oil & Gas Development Co., the nation’s biggest company by value, rose the most in three weeks after its steepest drop in three years yesterday.

Cricket Star

Khan, a former cricket star whose party controls about a tenth of parliamentary seats, will lead his planned march on Aug. 14 to push for a fresh election, prompting speculation in recent days that the military may seize power for the fourth time since 1947. Khan told reporters yesterday he has no choice but to hit the streets after election authorities dismissed his complaints of fraud in last year’s vote.

“We all need to be prepared to remove any hurdles in our way,” Khan said in a televised speech to supporters in Lahore late yesterday. “The police are with us, and the army will not stop us as they are with the people.”

Khan has been a vocal opponent of a military offensive that began in June to flush out Taliban militants in North Waziristan. His party runs the government in the northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, adjacent to the border with Afghanistan, which it won control of in the last elections.

‘Getting Desperate’

“Imran Khan is getting desperate,” Shaikh Mutahir Ahmed, chairman of the international relations department at the University of Karachi, said by phone today. “He wants to create a fuss and get a chance to rule, but this won’t be possible.”

Sharif, 64, has sought to revive Pakistan’s finances through a privatization drive and cutting power subsidies. The election that brought him back to office in May 2013 marked the first-ever democratic transfer of power in a country where the army has ruled for more than half of its history.

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.

“Plans for protests will sabotage the peace needed for economic uplift,” Sharif told a gathering in Islamabad yesterday. “I have offered talks: Come and tell us which of our policies are wrong. We should hold talks instead of holding protests.”

Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a popular cleric who has no representation in parliament, plans to join Khan’s protest. Qadri led tens of thousands of people in protests before last year’s election to demand changes to the electoral system, and his supporters have clashed violently with police.

“All parties have taken extreme positions and they don’t seem ready to step down from those positions,” Mahmud Durrani, a former national security adviser, said by phone. “If even one-third of the anticipated crowd enters Islamabad, it will be overloaded and that will cause friction and some trouble.”

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