A Pakistani hardline Islamist group on Monday said it would call off nationwide protests after the government agreed to its demands and the law minister resigned, following weekend clashes between its supporters and police that paralysed major cities. The government climbdown will be seen as an embarrassment for the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party ahead of elections likely in mid-2018, and underlines the power of religious groups in the nuclear-armed nation of 207 million. Seven people were killed and nearly 200 wounded after a police bid to disperse protesters in Islamabad failed on Saturday, spurring demonstrators wielding sticks and iron rods to block key roads and motorways in other cities. “Our main demand has been accepted,” Ejaz Ashrafi, spokesman of the Tahreek-e-Labaik group, told Reuters. “Government will announce the law minister’s resignation and we will end our sit-in today.” Law minister Zahid Hamid handed in his resignation to Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi “to take the country out of a crisis-like situation”, state-run news channel PTV said on Monday. Hamid is set to give a detailed statement later. Abbasi would accept Hamid’s resignation this afternoon, media said, adding that shipping containers police had used to block off the main protest site were being removed. The government spokesman did not respond to requests from Reuters for comment. The government called in Pakistan’s powerful military to tackle the protests after the police operation failed, but there was no sign of troops around protest camps on Sunday. The military said the army chief in one telephone call had advised Abbasi to resolve the protests peacefully.
For the past two weeks, activists of Tehreek-e-Labaik blocked the main road into the capital, Islamabad, in a protest that blamed the law minister, Zahid Hamid, for changing the wording in an electoral oath. The party says the words “I believe”, used to replace the clause “I solemnly swear” in a proclamation of Mohammad as the religion’s last prophet amount to blasphemy. The government blamed the change on a clerical error and swiftly restored the original format. Labaik, led by cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, Labaik is one of two new ultra-religious political movements to reach prominence in recent months. Labaik, which campaigns to maintain Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws, won a surprisingly strong 6 percent, and 7.6 percent, share of votes in two recent by-elections. Islamist parties are unlikely to win a majority in the elections expected next August, but could play a major role.
Giving in to the group’s demands had hit the government’s reputation and credibility, said political analyst Hasan Askari.
“These protests will have emboldened this group, and they are going to assert themselves and put up candidates wherever they can in the next general election, or at least they will oppose the PML-N,” he added. The opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party accused the government of bungling the efforts to remove the protesters and called for early elections.