Thousands march to demand new Pakistan elections

2 foes are seeking PM’s resignation

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LONDON — Thou­sands of Paki­stanis ral­lied be­hind for­mer crick­eter Im­ran Khan on Thurs­day as he led a mo­tor cav­al­cade to­ward the cap­i­tal, Islam­a­bad, for a pro­test to de­mand the res­ig­na­tion of Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif and fresh elec­tions.

The rally started in the city of Lahore, 160 miles to the south, with danc­ing and sing­ing from Mr. Khan’s bois­ter­ous sup­port­ers. It was ex­pected to reach Islam­a­bad as early as this af­ter­noon. A smaller group, also bound for Islam­a­bad, was led by Tahir-ul Qadri, a cleric who has prom­ised a “peace­ful rev­o­lu­tion” in Paki­stan.

The march, timed to co­in­cide with the 67th an­ni­ver­sary of Paki­stan’s in­de­pen­dence, fol­lowed weeks of grow­ing po­lit­i­cal ten­sion in the coun­try. It is the stron­gest chal­lenge yet to Mr. Sharif’s 14-month-old gov­ern­ment.

Ap­par­ently rat­tled by plans for the pro­test, the gov­ern­ment em­ployed heavy-handed tac­tics in re­cent weeks. Riot po­lice of­fi­cers clashed with Mr. Qadri’s sup­port­ers across Pun­jab prov­ince last week­end, re­sult­ing in at least two deaths. Mr. Sharif closed roads lead­ing to Islam­a­bad and in­voked pub­lic-or­der laws that ban meet­ings on its streets.

His re­ac­tion ap­peared to stem in part from spec­u­la­tion that the po­lit­i­cal tu­mult could open the way for a mil­i­tary coup — a fate that Mr. Sharif suf­fered in 1999, lead­ing to his im­pris­on­ment and then seven years in ex­ile. But by late Thurs­day, those fears had dis­si­pated some­what, af­ter the gov­ern­ment re­luc­tantly agreed to al­low the pro­tests to pro­ceed.

Mr. Sharif also made a show of unity with the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship, ap­pear­ing twice along­side the pow­er­ful army chief, Gen. Ra­heel Sharif. Late Wed­nes­day, the two men, who are not re­lated, at­tended a mil­i­tary cer­e­mony out­side Par­lia­ment. On Thurs­day, they trav­eled to in­sur­gency-stricken Ba­lu­chistan prov­ince for a cer­e­mony to mark the re­open­ing of Zi­arat House, a for­mer res­i­dence of Paki­stan’s found­ing father, Mu­ham­mad Ali Jin­nah. The house was burned to the ground last year by Ba­luch sep­a­rat­ists.

“The coun­try can­not af­ford any more sub­ver­sion and neg­a­tive pol­i­tics,” Nawaz Sharif said in a speech.

Mr. Khan’s “in­de­pen­dence march,” as he calls it, is driven by ac­cu­sa­tions that Nawaz Sharif’s party rigged the gen­eral elec­tion in May 2013. The re­sults handed Mr. Sharif a hand­some ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment, al­though Mr. Khan’s Paki­stan Te­hrik-e-In­saf party won con­trol of the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment in Khy­ber-Pakh­tunkhwa prov­ince.

The pop­u­lar­ity of Mr. Khan, 61, a for­mer cap­tain of the na­tional cricket team and an en­dur­ing sex sym­bol — he was pho­to­graphed bare-chested out­side his home this week — is built on his ap­peal to young Paki­stanis who have be­come dis­il­lu­sioned by tra­di­tional pol­i­tics.

In re­cent days, sup­port­ers camped out­side his home in Lahore’s Zaman Park neigh­bor­hood, with “rev­o­lu­tion” on their lips.

But Mr. Khan has also faced crit­i­cism from crit­ics who see his pro­test as a power grab by an elec­toral loser, and a need­less dis­trac­tion when Paki­stan is fac­ing press­ing chal­lenges from an ail­ing econ­omy and Isla­mist in­sur­gents. The army has been fight­ing in North Waziris­tan, home of the Tal­i­ban re­bel­lion, since mid-June.

The pic­ture is fur­ther com­pli­cated by the re­turn of Mr. Qadri, who nor­mally lives in Can­ada and who led pro­tests in Jan­u­ary 2013 against the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment, which was headed by Pres­i­dent Asif Ali Zard­ari. Although Mr. Qadri’s party has no seats in Par­lia­ment, Mr. Sharif in­ad­ver­tently bol­stered his cre­den­tials in June, when riot po­lice of­fi­cers vi­o­lently clashed with Mr. Qadri’s sup­port­ers in Lahore, re­sult­ing in at least nine deaths.

Although Mr. Qadri and Mr. Khan lead sep­a­rate pro­test groups, they have formed a loose al­li­ance and seemed set to ap­pear, sep­a­rately, on the streets of Islam­a­bad to­day. Govern­ment of­fi­cials said the pro­test­ers would be al­lowed to demon­strate at Zero Point, a ma­jor traf­fic in­ter­sec­tion on the city’s edge.

Asia - South Asia - Islamabad - Pakistan - Lahore - Asif Ali Zardari - Pakistan government - Nawaz Sharif - Muhammad Ali


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