The fresh talks came after days of clashes between police and club-wielding antigovernment protesters left three dead and hundreds injured, raising fears of an intervention by the powerful military that has ruled Pakistan for more than half its history.
Government negotiators met briefly with members of the Pakistan Tehreek Insaf party of cricketing legend Imran Khan ― who has been leading the protests along with populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri ― but they left without addressing the media.
Separate negotiations between Qadri and a cross-party team of opposition lawmakers were ongoing late Wednesday.
|Pakistan’s fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri (second from left) gestures while delivering his speech during a protest in Islamabad on Wednesday. (AP-Yonhap)|
Both Khan and Qadri claim that the 2013 general election which swept Sharif to power was heavily rigged. Thousands of their followers have set up camp in Islamabad’s sensitive “Red Zone” government district since Aug. 15.
But their calls to overthrow the government have failed to galvanize mass support in the country of 180 million.
Addressing supporters at a rally on Wednesday night as the talks got under way, Khan said he had no intention of calling the protests off any time soon, comparing them to Test cricket as opposed to the sport’s shorter Twenty20 form.
“It’s not a T20 match ― it’s going to be a long match,” he said.
Qadri, meanwhile, told his supporters to leave the area in front of parliament where protesters have been camped out for two weeks ― leaving it strewn with rubbish and human waste ― and to occupy the roads instead.
“We won’t leave the place till we change the system,” Qadri said.
Some of the pressure on Sharif eased Tuesday after opposition parties in parliament backed him to continue, and after a senior PTI member said Khan had acted on the army’s direction, damaging the movement’s credibility.
Parliament called a second emergency session on Wednesday, with senior PTI leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi saying the party was willing to resume talks with the government in the presence of a cross-party team.
“We are ready to negotiate, ready to solve the matter, ready to break the silence. Imran Khan hasn’t done all this for himself or Tehreek-e-Insaaf, he has done it for the better future of Pakistan,” Qureshi said.
Khan’s party wants Sharif to step down for at least 30 days so that an impartial probe can be conducted into last year’s election. Both local and foreign observers rated the vote as relatively fair and credible.
A source close to the talks said: “All other matters have been resolved but the main issue is still on table, which is Nawaz Sharif’s resignation.
“We are trying to sort out a middle way out of it,” he added.
The military has issued a series of public advisories to the government in recent days on how the crisis should be tackled, leading to criticism that it is interfering.
Analysts and government figures have said the army may be using the crisis to its advantage to try to assert its dominance over the Sharif government.