Pakistan lawmakers back premier amid mass protests
ISLAMABAD (AP) -- Pakistan's lawmakers rallied behind the country's embattled prime minister Tuesday in an emergency session, even as thousands of protesters remained camped outside of parliament demanding his ouster.
Speaking for the government in the joint session of Pakistan's National Assembly and the Senate, the country's interior minister slammed the protesters demanding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's resignation, describing them as "terrorists."
"This is a revolt against Pakistan," Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said. "They are fake revolutionaries, and they are terrorists."
Sharif called the session amid the biggest threat to his tenure since he took office a little more than a year ago in Pakistan's first democratic transfer of power since its independence in 1947.
Anti-government demonstrators led by opposition politician Imran Khan and fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri converged on the capital in mid-August, demanding Sharif's ouster over alleged fraud in last year's election. Their protests turned violent this past weekend, when clashes between demonstrators and security forces killed three people and wounded some 400.
Now, thousands of protesters who broke through a fence surrounding the parliament are camped on the lawn in front of the building and have essentially taken over Islamabad's Constitution Avenue, which runs past the country's main institutions of power, including the Supreme Court and the prime minister's office.
There were no reports of violence Tuesday, though the city remains on edge after protesters briefly took Pakistan's state television broadcaster off the air Monday and rampaged through its offices.
Sharif did not address the parliamentary session, which is expected to last a week. But one by one, all the speakers threw their support behind Sharif, including the leader of the main opposition party, the Pakistan People's Party.
Party leader Aitzaz Ahsan did criticize Sharif at times, saying that he should have shown better judgment in dealing with the protesters' concerns earlier. He also made his own allegations of vote-rigging in the May 2013 election, though international observers did not find any indication of such while monitoring the vote.
However, Ahsan gave Sharif his assurances that his party backed the government.
"No one can force you to resign as all of us are fully backing you," he said. "It is illegal and unconstitutional to demand the prime minister's resignation like this."
Khan and Qadri have been addressing their followers frequently, urging them to come to the streets to push out Sharif from power. They both claimed they would lead a million protesters to march on the capital, but the largest crowds have only seen tens of thousands of people.
Khan, speaking to his supporters after the parliament session, showed no sign he was ready to back down: "Even if you people leave me, I will not leave this place until Nawaz Sharif resigns."
In a more measured response, Qadri dismissed the parliament meeting, saying it was a product of the very vote manipulation that he and Khan have been fighting against.
"Their whole parliament came into existence through elections which were held in May 2013 and these elections were unconstitutional, illegitimate, invalid," he said, speaking during an interview with The Associated Press.
Qadri said he wants the prime minister to step down for a month or two while the allegations of vote-rigging are investigated and, if widespread rigging is proved, the assembly should be dissolved.
He also wants Sharif's brother, Shahbaz Sharif, to step down temporarily from his post as the chief minister of Punjab province while allegations that the government killed Qadri supporters during a June shooting at his Lahore headquarters are investigated. The incident has become a key point of contention between him and the government.
Such joint parliamentary sessions are rarely called in Pakistan and by showing up, the lawmakers showed unity amid the protests - against any extra-constitutional moves against Sharif, said Zahid Hussain a Pakistani analyst.
"The speeches were very critical of the government but the entire house has rallied behind the system and the democratic process," he said.
Most of Khan's supporters have resigned from parliament. His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party had been its third-largest bloc.
One of Khan's former top allies, Javed Hashmi, appeared in parliament Tuesday, entering to a standing ovation. Hashmi broke with Khan over a decision by the party to march on the prime minister's house, a move that sparked violence Saturday evening.
Hashmi on Monday raised the specter of military involvement in the protests, alleging that Khan's demonstration was scripted ahead of time and that Imran believed he had the support of the military. The military has denied it is backing the protesters.
But in a country where the army has taken control in three coups, the protests have sparked concerns the military is trying to weaken Sharif.
Sharif was ousted in a 1999 coup, and years later relations between him and the military are just as tense. Sharif has pursued a treason case against the former army chief and sided with a private television channel that accused the country's spy chief of trying to kill its top anchor. The prime minister also wants to open up relations with rival India and negotiated for months with Taliban militants who have repeatedly killed military troops.
Qadri rejected any allegation the army was supporting him.
"Army or any military establishment is absolutely, absolutely not behind us. We are not connected to them," he said.
Associated Press writer Zarar Khan contributed to this report.