Islamabad braced for huge Imran Khan-led protest against Sharif
Islamabad braced for massive street protests as former cricketer turned politician says his supporters will stay until fresh elections called
Pakistan is bracing itself for massive street protests in the capital, Islamabad, this week amid a political crisis that has seen cities' petrol supplies cut, clashes between police and the followers of a controversial cleric in Lahore, and demands by politician and former cricketer Imran Khan for the government to quit.
The chaos and political uncertainly comes a little more than a year after a landslide election victory swept Nawaz Sharif, a conservative businessman, to power for the third time.
Sharif's thumping parliamentary majority sparked a rare outbreak of optimism among Pakistan watchers who dared to hope the new prime minister had the mandate to achieve his aims of reviving a broken economy, making peace with India and tackling Islamist militancy.
But in the 14 months since he took office, Sharif's authority has been undermined by Pakistan's powerful military, Canada-based cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and Khan - a demagogue politician who claims Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League rigged the election.
Khan has vowed to bring Islamabad to a standstill on Thursday, the county's independence day, when huge numbers of his supporters will flood into the capital. He has vowed that they will remain until the government steps down and fresh elections are called.
Khan's antics have baffled many analysts and diplomats who are unconvinced the election was so flawed that Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party was denied victory. Most international observers judged the 2013 polls to have been considerably better than previous general elections.
"We didn't reject the election results immediately because we thought we could get relief from the courts," said senior PTI leader Shafqat Mahmood. "But now we have decided that everything we tried in parliament and the courts has not worked and so we have no recourse but to launch a huge protest."
The prospect of Khan's so-called "Freedom March" - in reality, a motorised parade - from Lahore to Islamabad on Thursday, has seriously alarmed the government.
Drastic steps have been taken to try and block the protest, including a ban on gatherings of more than four people, giving the army responsibility for guarding Islamabad, impounding motorbikes and buses and the closure of petrol stations. The motorway linking Islamabad to Lahore is also likely to be shut down.
Addressing the press on Friday at his luxurious hilltop estate overlooking the capital, Khan said his supporters had the right to resist any attempts by the police or the army to enforce the ban on protests in the capital.
"The police are not Pakistan's police but Nawaz Sharif's private henchmen," he said. "If they try to stop peaceful protest then there is going to be violence."
Sharif's power has also been challenged in the prime minister's home city of Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, where violent supporters of Qadri have been fighting against police in cities across Punjab.
Qadri enjoys the support of huge numbers of committed activists through his political party, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek and his religious organisation, the Minhaj-ul-Quran. He has long called for revolution, claiming Pakistan's democratic structure is mired in corruption and must be swept away.
On Sunday the police charged Qadri with murder after a police constable who was wounded in confrontations in Lahore on Friday died.