x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

100,000 join Pakistan rally to support Imran Khan

Pakistanis rally for the rising opposition leader, as the civilian government grappled with a rift with the powerful army and a scandal threatening the increasingly unpopular president.

ISLAMABAD // More than 100,000 people rallied for rising opposition leader Imran Khan in Pakistan yesterday as the civilian government grappled with a rift with the powerful army and a scandal threatening the increasingly unpopular president, Asif Ali Zardari.

Underscoring the turmoil, information minister Firdous Ashiq Awan quit amidst the controversy and then withdrew her resignation within hours afterward.

Some media reports said Ms Awan offered to resign after she was criticised by her partymen for failing to defend the government in the row with the military.

In Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, pop singers sang nationalist songs and jubilant supporters, most of them young, waved Pakistani flags and shouted slogans calling for revolution and condemning corruption in support of Mr Khan, the most celebrated cricketer in a nation obsessed with the sport.

Mr Khan held a similar rally in the eastern city of Lahore, his power base, last month.

Analysts say his Tehrik-e-Insaf - Justice Movement - is emerging as a major force ahead of elections due in 2013 but likely to be called early if the crisis between Mr Zardari and the military - which has ruled Pakistan for more than half its 64 years and is still the most powerful force - is not resolved.

"Pakistan is being ruled by corrupt and plunderers," said Javed Hashmi, an outspoken politician who has joined Mr Khan's party.

"We want to get rid of these plunderers," he said, as the crowd chanted "Prime Minister Imran Khan!"

Mr Zardari, who heads the Pakistan People's Party, is accused by critics of being corrupt and inept and is seen by many Pakistanis - angry at the US - as too close to Washington.

Pakistan is a key ally of the US in the war in Afghanistan and the route for most of the supplies for the US-led Nato force fighting the Taliban and other militants there.

But it is fighting a growing insurgency by Islamist militants linked to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, its economy is faltering and the rising civilian death toll from US drone strikes is turning many Pakistanis against the government.

A key irritant, especially for the army, is May's secret raid by US special forces to kill Osama bin Laden in a garrison town.

That led to the current scandal, in which the then ambassador to Washington allegedly sent a memo to the head of the US military through an intermediary asking for US help to head off a possible coup as a result of the bin Laden raid.

The Supreme Court is hearing a case about the memo affair and an adverse finding would likely undermine Mr Zardari.

Last week, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said there was a conspiracy to overthrow his government, in what analysts saw as a clear reference to the army.

The army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, on Friday denied the military planned to topple the government.

But when Mr Zardari travelled to Dubai this month for heart checkup, it sparked speculation he was about to be forced out by the army. He is now back in Islamabad.

In an apparent snub to the civilian leaders, Gen Kayani skipped official banquets hosted by Mr Zardari and Mr Gilani for a high-level Chinese delegation to Pakistan on Friday and Saturday.

In remarks yesterday marking the anniversary of the birth of Pakistan's founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, commonly known as Quaid-e-Azam, Mr Zardari said Mr Jinnah had always opposed dictatorship.

"The Quaid believed that any change must be brought about by ballot and rejected change by bullet," Mr Zardari said in the message released by the information ministry.

"Let us pledge we will not allow any change through force and intimidation and respect the power of ballot as the instrument of change."

Mr Zardari's main rival, Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister deposed by am army coup, has called for snap elections to avert political crisis.

The government rules in coalition and the memo scandal and friction with the army could undermine the unity of that coalition, analysts say.