January 16, 2013 / 2:23 AM / 5 years ago

Pakistan government digs in as cleric keeps up pressure

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan will not bow to the demands of a Muslim cleric who has brought thousands of protesters to the heart of the capital Islamabad calling for the resignation of the government and electoral reforms, the information minister said on Wednesday.

The government has also been rocked by a Supreme Court order on Tuesday to arrest Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf within 24 hours on a corruption investigation. However Ashraf remained a free man since officials said the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which would carry out the arrest, had not yet received direct orders.

The officials said the NAB chief would go the Supreme Court on Thursday to discuss the issue.

The cleric, Muhammad Tahirul Qadri, who played a role in backing a military coup in 1999, is calling for the immediate resignation of the government and the installation of a caretaker administration to oversee electoral reforms.

His sudden appearance at the forefront of Pakistan’s political scene has fueled speculation that the army, which has a long history of meddling in politics, has tacitly endorsed his campaign in an effort to pile more pressure on a government it sees as inept and corrupt.

Qadri and the military deny this.

The ruling Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) shows no sign of caving in to Qadri’s demands and hopes the protests will disperse over the next few days, easing pressure on a government faced with an abundance of challenges, from a Taliban insurgency to a weak economy.

At a press conference near the federal parliament, where many of the protesters are gathered, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said general elections will take place as scheduled some time between May 5 and 15, and suggested action would be taken if the protests drag on.

Women supporters of Sufi cleric and leader of the Minhaj-ul-Quran religious organisation Muhammad Tahirul Qadri hold placards on the third day of protests in Islamabad January 16, 2013. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

“All political parties are happy with the Election Commission and elections will happen on time,” he said.

“There is nothing wrong with raising your concerns and protesting. But if you try to hold the capital hostage and disrupt the lives of its people, the law will take its course.”

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The main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has also rejected Qadri’s call for the military to play a role in the formation of a caretaker government to oversee the run-up to elections.

“Tahirul Qadri is working on somebody’s agenda to derail democracy in Pakistan and we reject all of his demands.” Sharif told a news conference, in an apparent reference to the military.

The ruling coalition led by the PPP has a majority in parliament and, to continue to hold office, lawmakers can simply elect another prime minister if Ashraf is ousted.

In June, Ashraf replaced Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who was disqualified by the Supreme Court in a previous showdown between the government and the judiciary.

But Qadri’s appeal to thousands of supporters has injected fresh uncertainty into the governments’ s bid to cement Pakistan’s transition to democracy by becoming the first civilian administration to complete a full term.

The military has ruled Pakistan for over half of its 65 years since independence. But current chief General Ashfaq Kayani has vowed to keep the military out of politics.

Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

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