Imran Khan gestures to his supporters during a Freedom
March in Islamabad. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood
Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan called on his
supporters to march on a heavily fortified area of the capital
today after his party announced it would resign from parliament
to try to force the government to hold new elections.
The moves are part of a high-stakes showdown following four
days of protests in the capital of the nuclear-armed nation
led by former international cricketer Khan and cleric Tahir
ul-Qadri, who controls a network of Islamic schools and
The government has said Khan and Qadri are free to
demonstrate peacefully but will not be permitted to enter
Islamabad's Red Zone, which is home to many Western
embassies, the Supreme Court and government ministries.
Khan accuses Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of rigging last
year's election that he won by a landslide. Qadri says Sharif
is corrupt. Both have rejected negotiations offered by the
Many Pakistani analysts believe Khan and Qadri mounted their
parallel protest campaigns because they sensed Sharif's
fraught relationship with his generals had nosedived in
Any attempt by protesters to force their way into the Red
Zone could lead to a violent confrontation.
The area has been sealed off with shipping containers and
barbed wire, and is guarded by thousands of riot police, the
army and the paramilitary Rangers. Khan has appealed to
police not to oppose the march.
"I will lead you and you will follow me," he told thousands
of supporters at a rally on Monday in Islamabad. "I am
inviting all families ... there will be women and children
Qadri has given Sharif until midnight to resign. He has
called for nationwide sit-ins until Sharif is ousted.
Sharif's election win marked the first democratic transfer of
power in history of the coup-prone country. He has refused to
The protests have raised questions over the stability of the
civilian government at a time when the country of 180 million
people is struggling to combat a Taliban insurgency and
overcome the legacy of decades of military rule.
Sharif's last term ended in a coup in 1999 and since taking
office last year he has clashed with the military on several
Many officers are unhappy that Pervez Musharraf, the army
chief who ousted Sharif, is on trial for treason. They
distrust Sharif's dovish stance towards rival India and were
frustrated by delays over the launch of an anti-Taliban
But few think the military, which has ruled Pakistan for
around half its 67-year history, wants a coup. It has not
spoken publicly about the protests.
On Sunday, police said some 55,000 people protested to the
capital. The numbers were far less than organisers hoped for
but were enough to paralyse two main streets in downtown
Broadening the action, Khan's Tehreek-i-Insaaf party said on
Monday it would resign form the National Assembly, where it
is the third largest party with 34 out of 342 seats. Khan's
party will also withdraw from two out of four provincial
assemblies in Pakistan, senior party official Shah Mehmood
It has no seats in the third province and Khan's party rules
the fourth province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Officials there will
not resign, he said.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa borders Afghanistan and is the heartland
of the Taliban insurgency. Qureshi's announcement means the
province, home to numerous militant groups and criminal
gangs, will be governed by a party in open confrontation with
the central government.
The growth of militant groups and a stable government in
Pakistan are the two biggest concerns of its Western allies.
Qureshi said the party was just waiting for three more
lawmakers to hand their resignations to him and then he would
deliver them to parliament as a group.
Qureshi said he hoped the resignations would force Sharif to
step down, but so far there have been no indications that the
pressure tactics are working.
Some commentators think Khan is running out of ideas after
his march attracted fewer followers than he hoped and a call
for civil disobedience met widespread ridicule.
Khan told supporters not to pay tax or electricity bills. But
only 0.5 percent of Pakistanis pay income tax and the
powerful also refuse to pay for utilities, worsening deeply
entrenched economic problems.