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Empty containers to be used as roadblocks lie on a highway ahead of a march by the opposition in Islamabad. Photo: AFP
Empty containers to be used as roadblocks lie on a highway ahead of a march by the opposition in Islamabad. Photo: AFP

Nawaz Sharif says he’s staying until 2018 as Pakistan march looms

Defence minister said ties with the military were 'cordial and fine' and there was no possibility of a coup

Karachi: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said voters will pick a new government in 2018 as one of his cabinet members dismissed concerns that an opposition protest in the capital on Thursday would trigger a coup.

Sharif late on Tuesday appointed a commission to probe fraud allegations in the nation’s May 2013 elections, the first-ever democratic transfer of power in a country where the army has ruled for more than half of its history. Defence minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said in an interview that ties with the military were “cordial and fine".

“No group will have the right to sabotage Pakistan’s prosperity and development," Sharif, 64, said in a nationally televised address. “We will not let the law of the jungle take over our country."

The prospect of unrest triggered the biggest fall in Pakistan’s benchmark stock index since 2009 on 11 August as Sharif warned 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.

“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."

Stocks rebound

Pakistan’s benchmark KSE 100 Index, up 13% this year, rose 0.9% as of 11:10am. local time, the second day of gains after its biggest retreat in five years a day earlier. Oil and Gas Development Co., the nation’s biggest company by value, gained 1.2%.

Imran Khan, a former cricket star whose party controls about a tenth of parliamentary seats, plans to rally 1 million people in a march on Thursday to push for a fresh election, prompting speculation that the military may seize power for the fourth time since 1947. Khan, 61, has said election authorities unjustly dismissed his complaints of fraud in last year’s vote, and late on Tuesday rejected Sharif’s investigation.

“Protest is the only option after our election rigging claims were rejected," Khan told reporters in Lahore. “Sharif knows the art of corruption. He needs to resign."

Authorities in Islamabad, the capital, blocked roads with containers, barbed wire and large craters to deter demonstrators. Mobile phone services are suspended in parts of the city from Wednesday for an indefinite period of time at the government’s request, according to a spokesman for the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority.

Coup possibility

Sharif authorized the military in June to flush out Taliban militants in North Waziristan along the Afghan border. He’s also pursued a case against Pervez Musharraf, the former military leader who seized power from him in a 1999 coup.

“I don’t see any possibility of military intervention or any coup," Asif, Sharif’s defence minister, said in an interview in Islamabad on Tuesday. “We have complete consensus, complete agreement on foreign policy and armed forces requirements."

Khan has been a vocal opponent of the North Waziristan military offensive. 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.

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

‘Getting desperate’

Sharif 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.

Sharif’s party won 47% of seats in the last election. It now controls 55% of positions in the 342-member national assembly after winning the support of independent candidates and receiving allocations reserved for minorities and women.

“These protests will take Pakistan back into the darkness of extremism and terrorism," Sharif said in his televised speech on Tuesday. “The country is coming out of its problems and heading towards better times."

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 demonstrations before last year’s election to demand changes to the electoral system, and his supporters have clashed with police in the past.

“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." Bloomberg

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