Pakistan's parliament threw its weight behind embattled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif yesterday as a deepening crisis over violent protests demanding his resignation prompted fears of an army intervention.
But, signaling a possible softening in his position, protest leader Imran Khan said he would meet a conservative Islamist politician who has been trying to mediate between Khan and the government since the start of the confrontation.
Sharif, who enjoys a solid majority in parliament, convened a joint session of the assembly as he seeks to reaffirm that he is fully in control more than two weeks after protests seeking to bring down his government erupted in the coup-prone nation.
His office said parliament would be in session all week to allow all members to express their views, reports Reuters. A string of politicians took to the floor during the first day, most of them expressing their resolute support for Sharif.
"This is not a protest, a sit-in or a political gathering. This is a rebellion. It is a rebellion against state institutions. It is a rebellion against the state of Pakistan," Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar told parliament.
"Clear guidance from this parliament would give strength to the police. ... They are not revolutionaries, they are intruders and terrorists," he said of the protesters.
Aitzaz Ahsan from the opposition Pakistan People's Party said: "As you have said, you will not resign, no one can force you to resign. The entire parliament is with you."
Sharif, wearing traditional Pakistani clothes, made no remarks, taking notes and listening to the speeches. A spokesman said he might speak later in the week after all the lawmakers made their speeches in alphabetical order.
During the day's developments the Supreme Court issued notices to all parliamentary parties along with the PAT, and more importantly a Joint session of Parliament opened in which all the parties put aside their differences and stood firmly against what they termed were attempts to derail the democratic process in Pakistan.
MNA's from various political parties gave their support to the prime minister and criticised the PTI chief Imran Khan and PAT leader Tahirul Qadri, Dawn reported early today.
From Aitzaz Ahsan to Mahmood Achakzai and from Chaudhry Nisar to Maulana Fazlur Rehman, MNA's took shots at Imran Khan and said the protest movement was jeopardising the democratic set-up.
Estranged PTI MNA Javed Hashmi announced his resignation from the National Assembly and embraced briefly his former party leader and now PM Nawaz Sharif, who listened to speech after speech denouncing the marchers and voices of support for him that crossed party lines.
Meanwhile, Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri continued their protests and criticized political figures as well and reiterated their demand that both Nawaz Sharif and Punjab CM Shahbaz Sharif had to go.
Pakistan has been in turmoil since mid-August when tens of thousands of protesters led by Khan, a former hero cricket player, and outspoken cleric Tahir ul-Qadri flooded into the capital Islamabad, refusing to leave unless Sharif resigns.
Convening the week-long parliamentary session appears to be part of Sharif's attempts to divert attention from the streets and shift the conflict into the political arena.
The protesters accuse the government of corruption and Sharif of rigging last year's election. They have categorically refused any talks. Sharif denies their accusations and has urged them to come to the negotiating table.
Speaking outside parliament, Khan told supporters he would meet Siraj-ul-Haq, head of the Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami party, later in the day to discuss the situation. But he stopped short of saying he was ready for talks with the government.
"Siraj-ul-Haq is coming with (opposition figures) for talks, we have invited them to come. We will hold talks with them," Khan said. "The door for talks should always remain open."
He added that lawmakers from his party, who had earlier quit their seats in parliament, would attend Wednesday's session in he legislature to present their views - another move possibly taking the violent confrontation a step closer to the field of political dialogue.
The demonstrations turned deadly over the weekend as protesters armed with clubs and wearing gas masks to protect themselves against teargas tried to storm Sharif's residence. At least three people were killed and hundreds wounded.
But the capital was quiet on Tuesday, with no reports of violence. As deputies made their impassioned speeches, a crowd of a few thousand protesters massed peacefully just outside in the so-called Red Zone - a central area where Sharif's office, ministries and many embassies are located.
The chaotic scenes in the usually orderly capital have unnerved a nation where power has often changed hands though military coups rather than elections, prompting speculation that the military was prepared to intervene again.
Few expect the army to actually seize power this time but many believe it is using the protracted crisis to weaken Sharif and consolidate exclusive control of key security and foreign policy issues such as relations with India and Afghanistan.