Islamabad: Pakistan`s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Tuesday announced the Supreme Court would probe allegations of rigging in last year`s elections, in an apparent bid to diffuse a political crisis that was immediately rejected by an opposition leader.
The announcement was made two days ahead of the country`s Independence Day celebrations, when followers of cricketer turned politician Imran Khan and populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri plan to march on the capital to demand that Sharif`s government step down ahead of a fresh vote.
Addressing the nation on live television Tuesday evening, Sharif said: "The government has decided that for independent and transparent investigations into the allegations of rigging a three-member commission of Supreme Court judges should be formed.
"My dear countrymen, after this step is there any room for a protest movement? I leave you to answer this question," he added.
But the proposal was almost immediately rejected by Khan, who heads the country`s third largest party and has called the 2013 election the most fraudulent in the country`s history.
"You (Sharif) should resign, then a judicial commission should do its work. Because if you are at the helm, there cannot be any justice," he told reporters in the eastern city of Lahore.
He also complained that the government was harassing and detaining his party members, adding: "You are digging your own grave by stopping and arresting our workers."
Khan`s rejection of a judicial probe was an apparent U-turn on an interview he gave to a local TV station a short while earlier in which he said he had faith in the Supreme Court and would trust any decision it made. Sharif`s 2013 victory saw Pakistan`s first ever handover of power from one civilian-led government to another, in polls that local and foreign observers called credible.
In his television address, the 64-year-old prime minister said that economic progress had been made under his government and that the opposition groups` protests would reverse the tide.
Pakistan`s foreign exchange reserves have doubled from $7 billion to $14 billion under Sharif`s tenure while the rupee has stabilised to around 98 to the dollar after hitting highs of around 110.
Many analysts have said the opposition groups are playing into the hands of the country`s powerful military establishment which wishes to cut the civilian government, with which it has several disagreements, down to size.
Khan and Canada-based preacher Tahir-ul-Qadri, who says he is struggling for an "interim national government" consisting of technocrats and experts, have announced they will merge their marches.
Tension has gripped parts of the country since last week with running clashes between police and supporters of Qadri in the eastern city of Lahore over several days leaving at least one protester dead.
In the capital Islamabad, authorities have been preparing to seal the capital using shipping containers while rumours of impending market closures have sparked panic buying for groceries and petrol.
The marches are planned for August 14, the date of Pakistan`s independence from Britain in 1947.
The government for its part has rejected the allegations and accuses the opposition groups of attempting to obtain by force what they could not achieve through democratic means.