Protesters Demand Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif's Ouster

Protesters surrounded Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's home, and for a brief period forced government TV off the air. Steve Inskeep talks to Jon Boone, a correspondent for The Guardian in Islamabad.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's turn now to a country that has to some extent fallen out of the American news. Pakistan has been overshadowed by trouble elsewhere in the Muslim world, but it remains a place of dramatic confrontation. And in recent days protesters in that giant country have been trying to force out the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. They've surrounded the prime minister's home and Parliament offices and today briefly forced government television off the air. Jon Boone is the correspondent for the Guardian. He's in Islamabad. Welcome to the program.

JON BOONE: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Why are the protesters protesting?

BOONE: Well, as you say, they want to oust Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and sweep away the government in entirety. There are actually two groups of protesters, one led by the former cricket star Imran Khan, who's subsequently become a politician. And the other lead by a man called Tahir-ul-Qadri, who is a Muslim cleric with a wide following in Pakistan and indeed around the world.

They have slightly different demands. Imran Khan believes that the elections last year, which Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif won in a landslide, were rigged against him. So he wants fresh elections. The Muslim cleric Qadri, he seems to think that Pakistan's democratic set-up is irredeemably corrupt. He wants it swept away. And what he calls a national government of technocrats to take the reins and to introduce reforms without the influence of a corrupt political class as he sees it.

INSKEEP: How strong is the evidence of fraud?

BOONE: Almost none at all. I mean, no serious independent or international election monitoring body have agreed with Khan that there was massive industrial scale rigging that would've deprived him of victory. Although everyone concedes that, you know, this was a Third-World election and that there were certainly irregularities but not enough to change the results.

INSKEEP: Now, what have the protests been like day-to-day? You're in Islamabad of course where the strongest protests have been.

BOONE: It's been very strange. It's been a sort of on-off protest with, you know, crowds ebbing and flowing, lots of people coming in to the city in the evening to hear political speeches and music. There's been a real sort of festive carnival atmosphere, particularly at the protest - as these are two parallel protests, and the one surrounding Imran Khan has been particularly festive.

But in recent days, we've seen things take an ugly turn with the protesters attempting to storm the official residence of the prime minister on Saturday. That provoked a reaction from police, which led to almost 500 people being injured and three people dying during the course of the night which is - has suddenly made this crisis much more serious. It's no longer a carnival. Now people are increasingly worried that something will have to give and that, you know, perhaps the government may be forced to step down. It's all now very uncertain, and there's a high degree of anxiety in Islamabad.

INSKEEP: I want to mention a little bit of history here Mr. Boone, that Nawaz Sharif has been prime minister before, that he actually was removed in 1999 in a military coup and that there have been many military coups or military actions that caused a change in government in Pakistan. Where does the army stand in all of this right now?

BOONE: Well, for the time being, the army is trying to remain a neutral arbitrator. It doesn't like Nawaz Sharif. There have been arguments throughout his first year in power, bitter arguments over policy and the high-treason trial of former military leader, Pervez Musharraf.

But they don't want him to go either because if there's an unconstitutional coup or change of power, then they risk jeopardizing up to $3 billion of U.S. aid. They'll have to become more and more involved in politics when they wanted to be focusing on military operations against the Pakistani Taliban. So for the time being, they're treading this very careful line of trying to remain independent.

INSKEEP: Jon Boone is the Guardian correspondent in Islamabad. Thanks very much.

BOONE: Thank you.

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