According to Reuters thousands of anti-government protesters began a march to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, from the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday, raising fears about political stability and prospects for civilian rule in the nuclear-armed country.
Two protest groups – one led by cricketer-turned-opposition politician Imran Khan, the other by activist cleric Tahir ul-Qadri – are heading to the capital to demand that a government they condemn as corrupt step down.
Both marches were initially banned, then allowed to go ahead at the last minute. The thousands of protesters leaving Lahore caused huge traffic jams, and by evening the marches had not left the city. A Reuters reporter estimated Qadri had about 10,000 supporters and Khan around 7,000. Both plan to pick up more en route.
Qadri, a Muslim preacher turned political activist who usually lives in Canada, says he wants to see the government out by the end of the month. His supporters, many from his network of Islamic schools and charities, have been involved in several deadly clashes with police.
In Islamabad, security was tight. Main roads and key areas, including many embassies, were blocked by riot police and shipping containers.
Qadri has said he plans to force Sharif and his government to step down by the end of the month.
“There will be a sit-in. They will stay there until their demands are met and (Sharif) steps down,” Qadri told Reuters.
The cleric’s calls for revolution are especially appealing to poor Pakistanis who struggle with high unemployment, daily power cuts and inflation. So are the promises he makes.
“Every homeless person will be provided housing; every unemployed person will be given a job; low paid people will be provided with daily necessities,” Qadri said in a speech on Thursday.
One of Qadri’s main complaints is that violence against his supporters by police is not being properly investigated. About 2,000 of his supporters have been arrested, police say.
The protests and fears of clashes have fuelled tension in the country of 180 million people. The political confrontation has revived concern about the central issue in Pakistani politics: competition for power between the military and civilian leaders.
Some officials have accused elements within the powerful military of orchestrating the protests to weaken the civilian government. The military has declined to comment but has previously said it does not meddle in politics.
Many analysts doubt the military wants to seize power, but a perception is widespread that it could use the opportunity to put the civilian government under its thumb.
Despite those perceptions, Sharif is relying on the military for security in the face of the challenges. As a result, the government is probably less determined to pursue policies the military objects to, such as the prosecution on treason charges of former military leader Pervez Musharraf, analysts say.
Khan said he was cheated in the general election in May last year and wants a proper investigation into his complaints.
His supporters were exuberant as they set off on the 370-km (230-mile) journey to Islamabad on Thursday, an Independence Day holiday in Pakistan.
Khan travelled in a modified, bulletproof shipping container with windows. Many of his supporters carried sleeping mats and food, determined to camp on Islamabad streets until their demands were met – including a demand for Sharif to resign.
“I was treated at his cancer hospital free of cost,” said 50-year-old housewife Aasia Khan, referring to a charitable hospital that Khan set up in memory of his mother. “I owe him a lot and will support him until I die.”
Khan’s political ambitions were dismissed for years, but he built up support, in particular among students. The one-time playboy cricket star developed a reputation as a conservative maverick and questioned Pakistan’s close ties with the United States.
He won 34 seats in the 342-seat lower house of parliament in the last election. Sharif’s party won 190 seats.