Islamabad: With influential cleric Tahir-ul- Qadri descending on Islamadad with swarms of his supporters, Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf today lobbied with top political leaders, including PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif, for "upholding" the democratic system.
Hours after Qadri gathered in the heart of Islamabad with tens of thousands of people demanding sweeping electoral reforms, Ashraf telephoned Sharif, PML-Q chief Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, Awami National Party leader Asfandyar Wali Khan, Muttahida Qaumi Movement chief Altaf Hussain and Pakhtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party leader Mehmood Khan Achkzai to discuss the situation.
"During his conversation with the political leaders, there was a consensus on upholding the Constitution and the democratic system. The leaders noted that democracy has been achieved in the country after great sacrifices and struggle by the people of Pakistan and it will be defended at all costs," said a statement issued by the premier's office.
The statement quoted the political leaders as saying that "any attempt to subvert the Constitution, derail the democratic dispensation or adopt unconstitutional measures should be dealt with firmly".
Ashraf contacted the leaders shortly before the apex court ordered his arrest over allegations of corruption in power projects. Ashraf said his government was "exercising restraint, patience and tolerance" in the face of the protest by Qadri and this should not be taken as "a sign of weakness".
He added, "Nobody will be allowed to impose his personal agenda". During their conversation with the premier, the political leaders agreed that the "entire focus of the all democratic and political forces should be on the preparation for the next general elections and their holding in free, fair and impartial manner under the supervision of the Election Commission", the statement said.
The apex court's order added to the uncertainty created by a protest in the heart of Islamabad by tens of thousands of supporters of Qadri, who demanded that the government should quit and dissolve the national and provincial assemblies.
Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira acknowledged that there had been a "lot of ups and downs" in the political situation since the morning but said the government had not yet received a copy of the apex court's arrest order against the premier.
Kaira made it clear that the general election would be held on time as the President, Prime Minister, parliament and Supreme Court had asserted repeatedly. "The system will not be derailed no matter what one wishes. We will not allow democracy to be derailed," he told the media.
He questioned the actions of Qadri, pointing out that the cleric had referred to the President and Prime Minister as the "ex-President and ex-Prime Minister" in an address early this morning. "It was almost as if he had prior information about the Supreme Court's order," he said.
Aitzaz Ahsan, a senior leader of the ruling Pakistan People's Party and a leading lawyer, told reporters that Ashraf would remain the Prime Minister until he is convicted and disqualified as a member of parliament.
"Arrest doesn't mean the government has collapsed," he said. The graft charges against Ashraf date back to his tenure as power minister. He has not yet been convicted for corruption.
Information Minister Kaira further said Qadri's demands were "not constitutional or lawful". He said the "law would take its course" if the cleric and his supporters continued their protest in Islamabad.
At the same time, he said, the government was ready to hold talks with Qadri on his demands.