Tens of thousands of protesters have arrived in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, where opposition politician Imran Khan and anti-government cleric Tahir ul-Qadri are leading demonstrations calling for the government to resign.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has called for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government to quit over alleged election rigging in the 2013 polls. He has called for fresh polls to be held across the country.
“We have the strength to topple Nawaz Sharif’s fake mandate,” he told supporters while en route to the capital. Khan’s party won 34 seats in Pakistan’s national assembly in those elections, compared to Sharif’s PML-N’s 189, and the then-incumbent Pakistan People’s Party’s 46.
“There is no route to justice left other than to take to the streets. I invite all Pakistanis here to fight for your freedom. No-one will give you your freedom on a plate. You have to fight for it,” added Khan.
Qadri, meanwhile, has called for a national government of bureaucrats, technocrats and others to be formed, ahead of a “revolution” to change Pakistan’s political system.
“The whole thing will be very peaceful. The government has to resign, and the assemblies have to be dissolved and the new system has to take their place,” Qadri told Al Jazeera ahead of his arrival in the capital.
The two protest convoys set off from the city of Lahore, about 370km south of Islamabad, separately on Thursday, and, after taking hours to cover the first few kilometres of their journey, picked up both pace and supporters as they made their way through Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, on Friday.
Both leaders are expected to address their supporters at separate rallies in government designated protest sites in the Aabpara and Zero Point areas.
Khan convoy attacked
On Friday, Khan’s convoy was attacked by a stone-throwing mob, some of whom allegedly carried posters of Sharif and his party’s leaders, in the city of Gujranwala. Khan was unharmed, but several of his supporters sustained minor injuries.
Khan arrived at the protest site at about 2:45am local time on Saturday (21:45 GMT on Friday), completing a journey that normally takes about six hours in a little over 36 hours. He has threatened to occupy the site, along with his supporters, until Sharif’s government resigns. Qadri’s supporters have made a similar threat.
“Our mandate was stolen by these people,” said Moin Akhtar Khan, a 19-year-old labourer who travelled from his home in Malakand, about 190km away, to join the protest in Islamabad on Thursday. “We will stay here until this government falls.”
Policemen largely watched from the sidelines as the protesters gathered in the Aabpara and Zero Point areas of the capital, chanting slogans, singing songs and waving flags ahead of their respective party leaders’ arrivals.
Protesters were periodically drenched as short torrential downpours hit the city throughout the day, but the rain appeared to have done little to dampen the spirits of those assembled.
“Nawaz Sharif has had a chance, and he has never done anything,” said Naziha Begum, 75, a supporter of Qadri and his Pakistan Awami Tehreek. “We will stay here until the system changes – we’re here for as long as it takes.”
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim