Pakistan’s Sharif capitalizes on lawyers’ march
The opposition lawyer has championed the popular protest that began Thursday. Some see a rule-of-law hero; others cite political expedience.
Nawaz Sharif has become the man of the hour in Pakistan, poised to add tens of thousands of followers to a nationwide protest against the government. The opposition leader's transformation from disciple of a military dictator to champion for the rule of law highlights how strong popular demand for democratic reform has grown here.Skip to next paragraph
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Lawyers and party workers launched a series of "long marches" Thursday from the corners of Pakistan to the central capital of Islamabad. The ruling party under President Asif Ali Zardari has angered much of the country by failing to fulfill a promise to restore an independent judiciary and by cracking down on the opposition.
Mr. Sharif has thrown his weight behind the lawyers and sealed his position as the nation's most popular political leader. But many who now stand with him do so at a distance – they remember that as prime minister in the 1990s he also tampered with the courts, aligned with religious parties, and aggrandized power to himself.
Some analysts claim that the experience of being toppled by a military coup changed Sharif into a reliable advocate for democratic institutions. Others find the transformation a bit too convenient – but suggest that the popular momentum for reform might be more powerful, for once, than any one political leader here.
"As we look to what extent Nawaz Sharif has changed, I think we should also look at how the [political] environment has changed. The people of Pakistan are much more interested in having leaders who have been showing their support for the democratic institutions and norms," says Khalid Rahman, director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad.
A Gallup poll this month reflects this movement toward principle over personality. Nearly half of Pakistan People's Party (PPP) voters disagree with Mr. Zardari's failure to restore former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to the Supreme Court. And 58 percent disapprove of the current court's decision to disqualify Sharif and his brother from political office. They also oppose the PPP's move to take control of the provincial government the brothers had run.
The percentages run even higher among the electorate – a measure of the frustration that is expected to show itself on the streets in the coming days. Concerned, the government banned public gatherings and arrested hundreds of activists Wednesday. The protest is expected to swell Sunday when the marchers reach Lahore – the capital of Sharif's power base. From there it heads to Islamabad, where police have prepositioned empty truck containers that can be used to block off road access to the city.
Marches began Thursday in Quetta, the capital of southwestern Baluchistan Province, and in the southern city of Karachi, the stronghold of a party allied with the central government. In Karachi, police initially diverted traffic to facilitate the passage of more than 2,000 lawyers and activists. But they blocked the rally once it reached the toll plaza on the highway connecting Karachi with the rest of the country.