A day after the military made a pitch for ‘meaningful dialogue’ to end the prevailing political turmoil, the government scrambled its negotiators to formally engage the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) in negotiations, but with little luck as both sides were reluctant to budge on their positions.
A four-member negotiating team of the PAT-led alliance conveyed its demands to the government through a go-between committee comprising two opposition lawmakers and as many federal cabinet ministers. The PAT-led alliance includes the PML-Q of the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen and Sunni Ithaad Council.
The negotiations were held in the container truck of PAT chief Dr Tahirul Qadri parked outside the Parliament House on the Constitution Avenue where tens of thousands of PAT and PTI supporters have been encamped since Tuesday night.
Speaking to journalists after the initial round of talks, PAT President Rahiq Abbasi said that registration of an FIR against those nominated by their party in the Model Town massacre and their arrest, and resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif were pre-requisites for further dialogue with the government. The government negotiators, he said, would convey these conditions to the prime minister.
Earlier the dialogue process suffered its first blow when Qadri and his allies objected to the composition of the government negotiating team which included Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique who is among those nominated as accused by the PAT in its complaint of the June 17 Model Town killings.
After brief meeting with the team, the PAT and its allies came out of the container and demanded re-composition of the government negotiating team. They reiterated that the first talking point was the Model Town tragedy, registration of an FIR against 21 key government functionaries, including the prime minister and his brother.
Subsequently, the government reconstituted the coordinating team by replacing Saad Rafique with Ahsan Iqbal, the federal minister for planning and development. Other members of the government negotiating team were Safron Minister Lt Gen (retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch, Haider Abbas Rizvi of the MQM and PML-Zia chief Ijazul Haq.
Frantic behind-the-scene efforts by different stakeholders resulted in what is being considered as a last-ditch attempt to resolve the debilitating political crisis that has been keeping the country on tenterhooks, especially since August 14.
Tens of thousands of participants of PAT’s revolution march and PTI’s Azadi march crossed into the Red Zone, the high-security area where key government buildings and foreign diplomatic missions are located, Tuesday night removing all shipping containers and barbed wire blocking the entry to the Red Zone. They had been staging separate sit-ins at Aabpara since August 16.
At Aabpara, Qadri had spelled out a charter of demands that included resignation of the prime minister; registration of an FIR against 21 government functionaries; dissolution of federal and provincial legislatures; and installation of a national government to implement his 15-point agenda before fresh elections.
Similarly, Imran had also put forward a six-point charter of demand which included resignation of the prime minister and dissolution of the assemblies; introduction of sweeping electoral reforms; reconstitution of the Election Commission of Pakistan; complete audit of the 2013 general elections; action against those involved in alleged rigging; and fresh general elections.
The government is willing to discuss all but one of the demands of the protesting parties: resignation of the prime minister and dissolution of assemblies. And it would be a daunting challenge for the negotiators to strike some kind of understanding between the government and the protesting parties.
Earlier Wednesday, the PAT chief expressed his willingness to negotiate with the government. The ice melted when two opposition lawmakers – Haider Abbas Rizvi of the MQM and PML-Zia chief Ijazul Haq – accosted Qadri.
Qadri claimed that the government never tried to negotiate with him since the killing of 14 PAT workers in the June 17 police crackdown at the PAT headquarters at Lahore’s Model Town.
About the government’s contact with him through Punjab Governor Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar, he said: “A senior government official who remained in contact with me himself conceded that he had no mandate and that he himself has to wait for months to meet the chief minister.”
He claimed that he had never refused to hold negotiations and “being a democrat I believe in resolving issues on the negotiating table”.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 21st, 2014.