A show of military muscle in Karachi

r Authorities quashed a pro-democracy rally yesterday, raising fear of longer military rule.

To explain the predicament of Pakistani politics, fruit merchant Shamim Malik lifts his scale and points to its two cups - fruit goes in one and a metal weight in the other. References to the tarazoo have become part of local political vocabulary, to compare one leader with another. "If [Pakistan's military ruler] Pervez Musharraf keeps on getting tough with Pakistan's political parties," he says, "soon he will find his 'weight' similar to that of our past rulers."

Like many in Pakistan, Mr. Malik now sees little difference between General Musharraf - who seized power in a coup in October 1999 - and previous leaders who used every opportunity to stifle their opponents. In the past few days, that comparison has appeared apt.

A planned May Day rally in Karachi against military rule was thwarted by the government. Pro-democracy groups say at least 5,000 activists were arrested in the past week on suspicion of preparing for the May Day rally, although authorities put the figure at about 1,000. Police say they arrested 150 protesters on Tuesday.

A law introduced last year banned public gatherings.

On Tuesday evening, the streets of the port city remained full of police and soldiers, and the curfew-like atmosphere tense.

Opposition leaders say the crackdown is part of Musharraf's plan to prolong his rule beyond the October 2002 date he had promised to hand over power to an elected regime.

But Brig. Mukhtar Sheikh, home secretary for the province of Sindh, of which Karachi is the capital, says the government acted to prevent bloodshed.

"They [rally organizers] were saying that even it if means violence, even if it means a clash with the government, they will go ahead with the rally.... Prevention is better than reaction."

Officials in the government who asked not to be named say that Musharraf is privately consulting with other generals, finalizing plans to become Pakistan's next president, with powers to sack a civilian government and reduce the authority of the prime minister, even after he hands over the reins to an elected regime.

Ejaz Shafi, a former member of parliament who had planned to attend the rally, says: "Every military leader in Pakistan has tried to prolong his rule by first seizing power and then becoming the president. General Musharraf's intentions are no different."

Pakistan has been ruled by the military for almost half of its 54-year history.

Musharraf has said repeatedly that he wants to rid Pakistan of its past legacy of widespread corruption and incompetence under elected governments that ran the country during its 11 years of democracy before the 1999 coup.

Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, the government's chief spokesman, says strict measures are necessary to make certain that the military's economic and other reforms proceed uninterrupted.

But independent analysts warn that the growing clash between the military government and the opposition feeds political uncertainty and could endanger the military's plans for economic reforms.

Pakistan has been urging the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other Western lenders to help its struggling economy with new loans so the country will be able to keep servicing its foreign debt of $38 billion, and domestic debt equivalent to another $24 billion.

"The economy would need to go through a major restructuring if Pakistan wants continued help from Western lenders," says a Western diplomat in Islamabad, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But the problem is that if there's political uncertainty, then Pakistan's prospects for new loans would receive a setback."

Other diplomats warn that a continuing crackdown on pro-democracy protests will increase criticism from Western human rights activists, who would urge their governments to use every means of pressure against the Pakistani regime.

Yet according to Maj. Gen. Qureshi, "there's a quiet revolution already under way," with the military planning to hold new elections to municipal bodies, which would be given more powers. Musharraf has said his hope is that elected local politicians will be more independent from the top hierarchy of political parties, dominated by rich elites.

While Pakistan's ruling generals and politicians prepare for a power struggle, on the streets, many worry about issues closer to home.

"I have five children and what concerns me most is their future. Today, their chances of getting jobs are fewer than before," says Malik, weighing fruit for a customer.

"If there's more fighting between the rulers and the opposition, that's going to be bad for business."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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