Facing his toughest test since becoming Pakistan's prime minister, a defiant Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday brushed aside the demand of protesters asking him to quit saying the country has survived "difficult times" and the current political crisis too shall pass.
Political stalemate has continued for the last two weeks with Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri's Pakistan Awami Tehreek refusing to budge from their demand of the prime minister's resignation over allegations of rigging in last year's general election and killing of 14 PAT supporters in Lahore on June 17.
"We have survived difficult times. In the 2008 elections, our hands were tied. But we campaigned and participated, we did not cry about rigging -- and it would have been a legitimate cry," Sharif said while addressing the National Assembly, his first major speech since the crisis erupted.
"Because at that time there was a dictator that controlled the government. He held those elections...But we said if the PPP has got more seats than us then we will accept that right of the PPP," he said.
Sharif expressed hope that this phase will pass and Pakistan will be steered towards prosperity. The PM in his address indicated in no uncertain terms that his Pakistan Muslim League-N-led government that has been in power since June last year and the present Parliament are here to stay.
"We are not going to be diverted by these things. The journey for the supremacy of Constitution and law in Pakistan will continue with full determination and God willing there will not be any interruption in it," he said.
Meanwhile, the supreme court ordered PTI and PAT protesters to clear the Constitution Avenue, including a road in front of the apex court and the Parliament, by Thursday.
A five-judge larger bench of the supreme court, headed by Chief Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk, gave the order during a hearing of identical petitions filed by bar associations across the country against the PAT and PTI's sit-ins.
According to petitioners, protesters were breaching the rights of the common citizen which ensure freedom of movement and right of assembly.
The protesters have been sitting in front of the Parliament House and the Supreme Court building since August 19, making the road inaccessible to government employees.
Days after its lawmakers resigned from the National Assembly, PTI's Punjab Assembly members today submitted their resignations, stepping up pressure on the embattled government.
Opposition Leader in the Punjab assembly and PTI member Mehmoodur Rashid and 28 other party members handed their resignations from the house in the Punjab assembly secretariat. However, two PTI MPAs from Punjab, Nighat Inqiar and Jahanzaib Kichi, did not submitted their resignations and Rashid said the two lawmakers were "reluctant" to resign.
Back channel efforts to broker a settlement between the government and protesters were on.
Jamaat-e-Islami chief Sirajul Haq said while addressing the media in Lahore that, "Neighbouring countries have also made their concerns known. I request both parties to speak to each other and solve their differences amicably, they have very little time."
Railways Minister Saad Rafiq said Khan and Qadri should not insist on Sharif's resignation. Even as Rafiq assured that there will be no crackdown on the protesters, the Punjab Police's Anti Terrorist Squad posted 500 officials in the "Red Zone" area where the demonstrators are camping.
After Sharif's refusal to resign, a PTI core-committee meeting was held to decide the future course of action.
A meeting of the Election Commission of Pakistan, headed by Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali, was also held on Wednesday. The meeting was held to discuss former additional secretary Afzal Khan and PTI chairman Khan's rigging allegations, media reports said.
Sharif has remained defiant in the face of protests by thousands of supporters of Khan and Qadri camping outside the Parliament demanding the Premier's resignation and re-elections to be held. Sharif said today would be remembered in the nation's history as a great day for democracy.
"This great display of strength will always be remembered. It makes me happy to think that this is the voice of the 200 million people of the country," the Premier said while addressing the National Assembly.
Sharif said his PML-N for five years worked with the Pakistan People's Party government and supported it to complete its term.
"I visited him (Imran Khan) in the hospital when he was injured and he congratulated me on winning the polls and said he will play the role of a constructive opposition," Sharif told the House. "Imran's claims were published in the papers as well," he said, adding that PTI had reservations but accepted the results of the elections.
"Later, when Imran invited me to Bani Gala, I went and we had a pleasant discussion. He assured me he is with the government in all steps taken in good faith," Sharif said. His remarks came as the clock ticked on a 48-hour ultimatum given by Qadri on Monday for the prime minister to step down.
Image: Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif