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Pakistan protests: Pitch rises

Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif defied house arrest to rally protesters in Lahore Sunday.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Issam AhmedCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 16, 2009

Crackdown: A protester in Lahore scuffled with police Sunday during an antigovernment march.

Mohsin Raza/Reuters

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Islamabad and Lahore, Pakistan

Thousands of protesters in Lahore defied a government crackdown that has shocked Pakistanis and further isolated President Asif Ali Zardari.

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Lawyers, activists, and opposition members overran barricades Sunday to reach Lahore's high court. Police there appeared split: Some charged with batons; others handed out water. Both tear gas and celebratory kites filled the air.

Recent efforts to suppress a cross-country protest march – including roundups of activists, tampering with cable news signals, and the alleged house arrest of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif – have many Pakistanis sensing déjà vu of past military regimes. Yet this government was democratically elected with a mandate to undo the dictatorial practices under Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

"The government is throwing everything they have at this march," says Iqbal Haider, co-chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "The government is ruling like Musharraf's heirs."

Abida Hussain, a member of the executive committee of Mr. Zardari's ruling Pakistan People's Party, defended the government's actions so far. "The government has to protect lives and properties of its constituents," she says.

Pakistanis appear to be turning out in large numbers to fight for the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances within government. Analysts point out that a lack of checks on Zardari has created a situation in which, one year after a successful vote, people are taking to the streets in frustration.

"All those people are out there for an independent judiciary. It's all about checks and balances – the need for an independent check that should be there," says Muddassir Rizvi, national coordinator with the Free & Fair Election Network, an election monitoring group in Islamabad.

Other checks on Pakistan's ruler are also weak, say analysts. This may help explain why Zardari feels secure enough to take a largely combative approach to the protests, although he began offering talks with the opposition last Friday.

The military has historically stepped in to remove unpopular civilian governments, but was itself ushered from power in 2007, when then-President Musharraf gave up his other title as Army chief. His successor, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, has pledged to keep the Army out of politics.

But since nationwide protests began last Thursday, the government has called on the military to help maintain order. General Kayani met with government leaders over the weekend to urge a political resolution.

Parliament, meanwhile, has little control over the president because he still holds the power – acquired by Musharraf during his tenure – to dismiss the legislative body.