Decrying what they say were rigged elections last year, tens of thousands of Pakistanis gathered in their nation’s capital on Saturday to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government.
The protests – two rallies led by cricket star turned politician Imran Khan and cleric Tahirul Qadri – were called to challenge the results of May 2013 elections that set in motion the first transfer of power from one civilian government to another since Pakistan gained independence in 1947.
Khan and Qadri had vowed to bring 1 million followers each into the streets of Islamabad. However, police put the total number of marchers at about 50,000 by Saturday evening after heavy rain that brought misery to the protesters, many of whom had slept outdoors.
An estimated 32,000 police officers and paramilitary forces were deployed to secure the capital. Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan said the government had tightened security after intelligence agencies received reports that terrorists were planning to carry out suicide attacks on the rallies.
Khan, chairman of the country’s third-largest political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, likened his followers to a tsunami that would reach parliament and Sharif’s official residence.
Qadri, an anti-Taliban cleric who returned to Pakistan from Canada in June, gave an afternoon speech to followers calling on Sharif and parliament members to resign.
"Nawaz Sharif should be arrested when he steps down and he should not be allowed to leave the country," he told followers at the rally, the Associated Press reported.
Both men have threatened to have their supporters occupy the capital until Sharif resigns, which he has refused to do.
Sharif leads the Pakistan Muslim League-N party, which trounced Khan’s faction and the Pakistan People’s Party in the 2013 elections despite widespread expectations that the vote would be closer.
The results led to an unprecedented third term as prime minister for the veteran politician, who served twice in the 1990s and was ousted from office in 1999 by a coup engineered by military leader Pervez Musharraf.
Sahi is a special correspondent.