ISLAMABAD — Ahead of a joint session of parliament, Pakistan’s prime minister and army chief had marathon meetings Monday about violent anti-government protests that could force the premier of this nuclear-armed country to resign.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif again vowed he would not step down under duress, even as protesters briefly took control of the country’s state-operated television broadcaster and battled security forces in the streets. But the pressure from three days of violent protests on Sharif has intensified amid reports — later denied by the military — that the country’s powerful army chief advised him to resign.
The parliamentary session today appears to be an attempt to rally political support to the prime minister’s side. While many politicians have backed him so far, many in the country increasingly have grown worried about the protests and the direction of the country’s nascent democracy.
The turmoil comes as part of the mass demonstrations led by cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and opposition politician Imran Khan, who both demand Sharif step down because of their allegations of fraud in last year’s election. Their protests, which have been peaceful for weeks, turned ugly this weekend when clashes between protesters and security forces killed three people and wounded some 400 in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad.
Monday began with more violence.
Demonstrators briefly took over Pakistan’s state television station, forcing the channel off the air. Senior official Athar Farooq said 20 cameras went missing as protesters overran the station, armed with sticks and screaming. The intruders also destroyed equipment and fought with employees.
Several protesters also took down a portrait of Sharif from a wall, threw it on the floor and stomped on it in anger.
Soldiers and paramilitary Rangers later reached the building and began to clear it of protesters. Some private television stations showed footage of protesters embracing the Rangers and agreeing to leave.
The rallies against Sharif constitute the biggest threat to his government. Several rounds of negotiations between representatives of Khan and Qadri and the government have failed to resolve the crisis.
The two opposition leaders allege widespread fraud in the country’s May 2013 election, in which Sharif’s party won by a landslide. International observers found no evidence indicating rampant election tampering.
Rumors swirled around the capital Monday after several television stations reported that the military forced Sharif to leave office, something the army later called “totally baseless.”
But questions about whether the military has played a role in fomenting the crisis intensified after a news conference by Javed Hashmi, who until Sunday was a top ally of Khan and the president of his political party, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf.
Hashmi said he disagreed with the party’s decision to march late Saturday toward the prime minister’s house and parliament, which sparked the clashes with police. He also has warned Pakistan is moving dangerously close toward martial law being implemented. On Monday, he described Khan’s protest movements as being scripted.
He also said he opposed joining Qadri’s protest. But touching his shoulder, in reference to the epaulettes military officers wear, Hashmi said Khan told him: “They want us to go with Tahir-ul-Qadri.”
Khan has denied any outside influence on his protest. The military also categorically rejected the idea that they backed the protesters and said their support for democracy was “unequivocal.”
However, Pakistan’s military wields a powerful influence in the country. It has taken power in three coups since the country was carved out of India in 1947, including one that forced Sharif out of the prime minister’s office in 1999 and into exile.
Sharif’s relations with the military have become increasingly rocky over his year in power. He infuriated them by pressing treason charges against former army chief Pervez Musharraf, who toppled him in 1999. The prime minister has pursued strengthened diplomatic ties with India, the country’s longtime advisory, and pursued peace talks with Taliban militants who have launched many attacks against the country’s security forces. He also sided with a private television station that accused the country’s spy agency of trying to kill a top anchor.
Critics also have questioned Sharif’s handling of the crisis, saying he has failed to show enough leadership.
“He has always been missing tactically at the critical junctures, and somebody else, whether it is the army or Qadri or Imran, has always been there to occupy his space,” read an editorial in Monday’s edition of The Nation, one of the country’s leading English-language newspapers. “It is his relentless absence that has engulfed him, ravaged his legitimacy and torn him apart politically.”