President Zia ul-Haq is trying hard to put the lid back on the opposition kettle here before it boils over. But in tightening martial law still further, the Pakistani President now has offended even some of his own one time supporters.
And his heavy-handedness risks producing the very result he wants to prevent: pushing his fractious opponents toward greater unity. For the first time, his political opponents seem to realize that they must come up with a viable alternative if they wish to replace Marshal Zia.
The new martial law restrictions, published without warning in the government press May 27, are aimed at quelling open political dissent and bridling increasingly defiant civil courts. They allow the chief marshal-law administrator to detain without reason anyone considered to be posing a threat to the security of the nation.
Furthermore, civil courts are no longer permitted to interfere with decisions passed by military tribunals. And in a measure pointedly aimed at journalists, the dictatorship also reserves to itself the right to prevent undesirables from practicing their profession. For example, highly respected journalist Salamat Ali, recently released from 4 1/2 months jail, but still harassed by the authorities, has been more or less pressured into leaving the country. He is now covering Pakistani affairs from New Delhi.
"These new measures are extremely serious," noted a member of the Pakistani People's Party (PPP) led by Begum Nusrat Bhutto, widow of the late prime minister. "The regime has long since controlled the executive and the legislature. It has effectively destroyed Pakistan's federal system. Now, more than ever, it is trying to bring judiciary to heel."
With no immediate prospect of free elections, despite President Zia's attempts to incorporate politicians in the government on an advisory basis, many critics have regarded the civil courts as one of the last constitutional weapons to fight martial law decrees. since October 1979, when the government indefinitely postponed the promised elections and introduced tighter measures such as a ban on political activity and press censorhip, civil courts have tended to flout sentences handed down by the military tribunals. Floggings were suspended, defendents granted bail, and government judgment in certain cases overtly questioned.
"The courts have been nothing but a nuisance to Zia," observed a Karachi-based lawyer. "He wanted, once and for all, to rid himself of their insubordination."
Backroom criticism of the restrictions is widespread and extremely caustic. Even those who had up till now grudgingly admired General Zia, or considered his regime a tolerable alternative to some of the political chaos that existed during civilian rule, feel that the present crackdown has simply gone too far.
President Zia has been particularly concerned by a wave of public attacks against his policies over the past month. Along with the new measures, the regime also renewed its warning that all forms of political activity are illegal and punishable with up to 14 years imprisonment and a flogging.
With party organizations, assemblies, and newspapers banned, the chief martial law administrator chastised the country's bar associations for serving as platforms for critics. Despite the ban, Benazir Bhutto, daughter of executed leader, recently addressed both the Karachi Lahore bar associations. She stridently attacked the regime for its undemocratic procedures.
Observers believe that President Zia refrained from ushering in the new restrictions until after the Islamic conference in Islamabad because of his concern for cultivating an image of international respectability. "Zia has always been envious of the esteem that [Zulfikar] Ali Bhutto seemed to command both at home and abroad," said a Western diplomat. "But unfortunately for Zia, he simply has not got it."
With political leaders becoming bolder in their calls for an end to military dictatorship and the installment of an interim civilian government prior to the holding of free elections, General Zia is anxious to stamp out his growing opposition.
The self-appointed President was also motivated to bring out the new order as rapidly as possible by the prospect of a favorable verdict by the Lahore high court against government charges of political activity in the case of ex-Air Marshal Asghar Khan, head of the Tehrik-i-Istiqlal Party.
Released from house arrest earlier this year, Mr. Khan almost immediately launched an attack against General Zia's dictatorial policies and demanded free elections. He also appealed to Pakistan's underground political parties to "fight together to end military rule."
Not suprisingly, this did not sit well with the regime. Last week, two days after the new martial law order, he was detained again.
Efforts are being made by the major political parties to take steps against the government and present a viable alternative. Up till now, they have not done this.
The PPP, the largest party, has hinted to other groups that it is prepared to enter into an opposition coalition under the leadership of Begum Bhutto. Observers feel this may have been prompted by Madame Bhutto's fear that the loudly vocal Asghar Khan was beginning to steal too much of the opposition fire and might soon rally supporters.
Although opposition leaders like to claim that the people will soon hit the streets to overthrow the regime, analysts consider this unlikely. If any change is to come, it will probably come as a military coup, which theoretically, could then hand over power to an interim civilian government.
But the parties are seriously hampered by their outlaw status. Party organizational structures are extremely weak. Many upper-echelon members are in jail or under detention. The PPP, in particular, despite its broad grass-roots base, is still seriously wracked by dissenting left-wing elements.