Updated: 08/28/2014 05:07 | By Agence France-Presse

Pakistan PM defiant amid protest crisis

Pakistan's embattled prime minister said Wednesday he would not cave in to protests demanding his resignation, striking a defiant note in his first major speech since the crisis erupted two weeks ago.


Pakistan PM defiant amid protest crisis

Pakistani supporters of Canada-based preacher Tahir-ul-Qadri shout anti-government slogans during a protest in front of the Parliament in Islamabad on August 27, 2014 - by Aamir Qureshi

Nawaz Sharif told parliament his government would not be thrown off course by the demonstrations led by populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and opposition leader Imran Khan -- both of whom later called off talks with the government for a second time.

Thousands of Khan's and Qadri's followers have been camped outside parliament since August 15 demanding Sharif quit, claiming the election which swept him to power last year was rigged.

The crisis has rattled Sharif's government 15 months into a five-year term, prompting rumours the army may intervene to resolve matters -- and in doing so effectively put the elected government under its thumb.

In a country that has seen three military coups, the threat of army intervention casts a shadow over virtually every moment of political crisis.

But Sharif told lawmakers his Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) government would stay the course.

"We are not going to be diverted by these things," he said.

"The journey for the supremacy of constitution and law in Pakistan will continue with full determination and, God willing, there will not be any interruption in it."

He said the plan to revive the ailing economy through major development and infrastructure projects -- a key plank of the PML-N manifesto -- would continue.

Khan has alleged massive cheating in the May 2013 poll, though international observers said the vote was largely free and fair.

Shortly before the former cricket star and Qadri began their protests with "long marches" from the eastern city of Lahore, Sharif announced a judicial commission to investigate rigging claims in some seats, but Khan rejected the offer.

The government has also set up a parliamentary committee to consider electoral reform, and Sharif urged Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to support it.

"We want to bring reforms in all areas as we have to think about the future generation and find ways to take the country towards the destination of progress," he added.

- Talks off, again -

The protests in Islamabad have so far been peaceful, with security forces -- deployed in huge numbers in the capital -- taking a hands-off approach to the demonstrations.

But both protest leaders have stoked fears of an imminent violent crackdown, with Qadri telling supporters he was ready to be "martyred" as his followers dressed in funeral shrouds during a rally on Wednesday.

A government team held talks with Qadri late Wednesday, but he told his followers afterwards that negotiations had "completely failed".

He said the government was not ready to accept his two core demands, including the launching of a murder case against 21 people including the prime minister and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab province, as well as the resignation of Shahbaz Sharif.

"Tomorrow will be a day of revolution, a day of decision, everything is finished, now we will take our own decision," Qadri said in fiery speech.

Earlier, Khan also refused to end a sit-in after a separate government team negotiated with his party leaders.

Khan Wednesday told supporters the time for negotiations was over. He previously called off talks last Thursday, only to resume them a day later.

"We have decided -- Nawaz Sharif, listen -- there will be no negotiations until you resign. I will not accept anything but Nawaz Sharif's resignation to save democracy. 

"There is no room for talks. I will not leave this place until Nawaz Sharif resigns," Khan said -- adding that he had refused an offer by Sharif to make him deputy prime minister in exchange for calling off his protest.

Earlier, railways minister Khawaja Saad Rafique told parliament the government was prepared to meet all of the PTI's demands to investigate rigging barring the prime minister's resignation.

"They said they have suspicions of rigging, we told them that we would constitute a judicial commission and if rigging is proved, not only the prime minister but all of us will resign," he said.

"But they are insisting that the prime minister should resign even if it's for 30 days. Is this the way this country of 180 million people should be governed?"

Neither protest movement has mobilised mass support beyond their core followers, and other opposition parties have shunned Khan's call to unseat the government and begin a campaign of civil disobedience.

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