Govt mandates opposition-led mediation with protesters

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ISLAMABAD: A besieged government on Monday mandated an opposition-led mediation on its behalf with protesting parties seeking to force out Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over alleged rigging of last year’s elections, after all parties in both houses of parliament, minus the protesters, said no to using crowds to topple a government. Opposition leader Khursheed Ahmed Shah made the mediation offer at the start of a National Assembly debate on a fast-moving situation after five days of massive protests in Islamabad, led by the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and non-parliamentary Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT). The offer was declared accepted after the discussion.

Amid roars of crowds and their leaders at two complementary ‘dharnas’, or sit-ins, that have virtually brought the capital to a standstill, the prime minister’s presence in the house at the start of its sitting after a six-day recess sparked speculation that he would himself make a response, and Mr Shah too seemed expecting the same when he said a meeting of opposition and government-allied parties that he chaired had decided to talk to the protesters “if the prime minister gives us the mandate”.

But that was not to happen, as the prime minister did not turn up after a break for Maghrib prayers, probably due to a bombshell dropped about the same time by the PTI that its 34 members in the National Assembly would resign as a follow-up to the party’s decision announced on Sunday to launch a civil disobedience movement.

It fell to the lot of Defence Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif later at the end of the debate to announce the acceptance of the mediation offer and the formation of a five-member government committee to liaise with the mediators, along with a call to the PTI to “consider” both of its controversial decisions.

The government committee, he said, would comprise four ministers: Ahsan Iqbal, Khawaja Saad Rafique, Abdul Qadir Baloch and Akram Khan Durrani of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl. Irfan Siddiqi, the prime minister’s adviser on national affairs, will be the fifth member.

Mr Shah, who had little to justify the course taken by some of his opposition colleagues in the PTI, or by the PAT, and also blasted the government for an inordinate delay in reacting to the PTI’s original rigging complaints, later announced two committees of mainly opposition lawmakers and some government allies to talk to the PTI and PAT separately.

The committee to negotiate with the PTI will consist of Mr Shah himself and National Assembly members Ghulam Ahmed Bilour (Awami National Party) and G.G. Jamal (independent member from Fata), and one to be taken from Jamaat-i-Islami, which is an ally of the PTI-led Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government but its parliamentary leader in the lower house, Sahibzada Tariqullah, called the PTI decision for civil disobedience laughable.

The other committee to negotiate with PAT leader Allama Tahirul Qadri comprises Qaumi Watan Party leader and lower house member Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, former house member Haider Abbasi Rizvi of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, house member Ijazul Haq of Pakistan Muslim League-Zia, and Senator Hasil Bizenjo of the government-allied Balochistan-based National Party.

Mr Shah opposed the course taken by the protesters in mild language. This contrasted with strong denunciation of their threats to storm parliament by PPP lawmakers in the Senate. He said he hoped PTI chairman Imran Khan would “realise that if we are fighting for democracy, we will have to come to dialogue”.

The opposition leader blamed to government’s perceived procrastination over the issue on the prime minister’s aides and asked it to settle the crisis through dialogue “even if you have to give them something” more.