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Pakistani leaders reject protesters

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By The Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 9:40 p.m.

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's embattled civilian leadership declared on Wednesday it would not succumb to large anti-government protests, calling the demands made by demonstrators unrealistic because they require changes to the country's constitution.

Thousands of protesters near parliament say they want the dissolution of federal and provincial legislatures, the establishment of nonpartisan election commissions that can keep corrupt incumbents off the ballot, and the creation of a neutral caretaker administration that can govern until national elections are held.

“There is no space in the constitution for such things,” said Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira. “It's not possible.”

But protest leader Tahir ul-Qadri, a Canadian-Pakistani religious scholar, said President Asif Ali Zardari's government must meet the demands to end large sit-in rallies that have paralyzed the capital for three days and ramped up pressure on an administration many in the country regard as inefficient and corrupt.

Qadri has kept legions of followers from leaving the venue for the sit-in — a main avenue that leads to parliament — despite nighttime temperatures that have dropped to 37 degrees. He has revved up the estimated 40,000 rally participants with daily speeches that lambaste the country's current political leaders and lawmakers as “political thieves.”

Many analysts have speculated that Pakistan's powerful military, which has had an acrimonious relationship with Zardari, is orchestrating the movement to keep his government from winning another five-year term in office, a charge that both the army and Qadri deny. Analysts worry that the protest movement may keep the country, plagued by a history of military takeovers, in turmoil.

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