Pakistan's Sharif Suffers Setbacks Under Pressure From Opposition

PAKISTAN'S opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, is increasing the pressure on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The opposition parties have called upon their supporters to come to the capital of Islamabad on July 16 to join a "long march" against the government.

Mr. Sharif has had to fend off a lot of challenges lately. In April he was removed from office by Pakistani President Ghulam Ishaq Khan on charges of corruption. But the Supreme Court restored him to office 39 days later, ruling that the presidential action was unjustified.

Recent efforts to improve relations between the government and the opposition have failed. In June, Sharif appointed a committee to negotiate with ministers appointed by Ms. Bhutto, but no progress was made.

The setback has partly been caused by Sharif's reluctance to concede ground even on what the opposition calls symbolic issues. Court cases filed against Bhutto when her government was dismissed have neither been proved nor withdrawn by the government.

Other signs of trouble for the Sharif government include tensions with Mr. Khan, once Sharif's mentor.

At least two of the country's four provinces have turned hostile to the Sharif government. The provincial governments in the Punjab - home to almost 60 percent of Pakistanis - and the Northwest Frontier Province are openly supporting the opposition's call. The chief ministers and governors in both provinces are known to be loyal to Khan.

Sharif and Khan have remained bitter foes since April, when Sharif was removed from office. The two leaders met with each other twice on July 12, but the meetings left differences unresolved, according to senior government officials.

"Our politics have suffered in the past due to confrontation. What is more, is that due to this confrontation among the political forces, in the ultimate analysis, it is the antidemocratic forces who benefit and the political forces who are representatives of the people who suffer" said Sharif recently, warning about the consequences of a political breakdown.

The opposition also wants Sharif to hand over power to a neutral bipartisan government consisting of representatives from the opposition and hold fresh elections.

In response, Sharif says, "A call for fresh elections is premature since at this point in time such a call will aggravate political instability and political uncertainty."

But privately, a growing number of government ministers say that Sharif would be willing to call elections to resolve the crisis, but only if there were assurances that Khan would step down also.

Concerns over the Army's role in the country's future also contribute to the troubles Sharif faces. Pakistan's powerful Army chief Gen. Abdul Waheed, having presided over a meeting of corps commanders and top generals, this month advised Sharif to either resolve the political crisis or call fresh elections, according to senior officials. But senior Army officers continue to insist that they have no desire to seize power through martial law.

"On account of past experiences, many people often express unholy fears and needless concerns regarding the role of the Army, although the Army has remained neutral during the recent political crisis," Sharif says.

But many Pakistanis fear that their country's past legacy could return to haunt them. In Pakistan's 46-year history, civilian governments have ruled for roughly half that period, leaving the rest under martial law and military dictators. Traditions of stable civilian governments are only just taking root. The country has seen 13 prime ministers come to office during approximately 22 years of civilian rule. Most of Sharif's predecessors were either forced out of office during a period of political turmoil

or stepped down under intense political pressure.

In the most recent period of civilian rule, since 1985, three prime ministers were elected including Sharif. But each of them was removed by the president, who has wide-ranging constitutional powers to dismiss governments. Sharif's reinstatement is the first sign of his unprecedented resurgence after a successful legal battle.

But political observers here worry that he faces a political test that increasingly appears to be a futile battle.

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