Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, weakened by weeks of demonstrations calling for him to resign, threatened on Wednesday to clear a protest camp established more than a month ago outside government offices in Islamabad.
Protesters led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chief Imran Khan, a former cricket star, and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) Tahir ul-Qadri, a firebrand cleric, have been locked in a bitter stand-off with the government since mid-August, refusing to leave their camp until Sharif steps down.
The protest leaders accuse Sharif of rigging last year’s election which brought him back to power in a landslide.
“Up until now, we have tolerated all this and acted with decency and patience,” Sharif said in televised remarks.
“Otherwise it’s no hard task for us to clear the way and clear the streets.”
Pakistan’s opposition leaders ordered thousands of their supporters this weekend to resist any government attempt to quash their protests, prolonging a political crisis in the coup-prone country.
Khan’s party said it had not backed down from its demand that Sharif quit and was ending dialogue with the government after 100 activists were jailed over the weekend.
“We have not withdrawn our demand for the resignation of the prime minister,” said Jehangir Tareen, the party’s secretary general. “There is no point in continuing the dialogue with the government after the crackdown on our workers.”
The confrontation turned violent last month, with thousands trying to storm Sharif’s house and briefly taking the state television channel off the air.
Violence in the usually quiet capital has alarmed many people in a nation where power has often changed hands though military coups rather than elections.
Some ruling party officials have accused the military of instigating the unrest in order to destabilize Sharif so that it can exert more influence over him. The army has denied it was meddling in civilian affairs, saying it is neutral.