A power struggle in Pakistan that was touched off Wednesday by the sidelining of the country's main opposition leadership shows no sign of ebbing, dealing a blow to US efforts to focus Islamabad on the Taliban threat.
Protests over a court decision that bars popular opposition leader Nawaz Sharif from standing in elections entered their second day in several major cities.
In Lahore, protesters chanted slogans Thursday against President Asif Ali Zardari, accused by the opposition of engineering the court ruling and inflaming the situation by trying to replace the opposition-led provincial government in Lahore. Thirty opposition lawmakers were detained briefly after police barred them from Punjab's provincial assembly building in Lahore – further enraging the nearly 2,000 activists gathered.
Until now, the opposition parties and Washington have given the ruling party led by Mr. Zardari some latitude as the country emerged from nearly a decade of dictatorship. But the latest turn of events threatens to embroil Pakistan in months of turmoil at a time when experts are calling for political engagement in the country's counterinsurgency efforts.
"This again puts the entire onus of responsibility [for counterinsurgency] back on the military, which cannot deliver in terms of a durable political solution," says Imtiaz Gul, head of the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.
Experts in Pakistan concerned with the Taliban threat had hoped that the country's political leadership could join hands to "civilianize" the ongoing fight, as the military effort had only stoked local resentment, he says. "With the latest developments, all those hopes seem to have vanished for the time being."
Now the country looks ahead to nationwide protest marches set for the second week of March. Planned before the court decision, these marches by lawyers are expected to intensify with the addition of Mr. Sharif's supporters.
The government of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has grown increasingly unpopular since taking office a year ago. Lawyers and others are frustrated that the government has failed to overturn decisions made by former ruler Pervez Musharraf to stave off his challengers – including the replacement of judges. The judges who ruled Wednesday were Musharraf appointees, and many observers in Pakistan read their decision as entirely political.
The ruling party denies involvement. "Neither the president nor the federal government had anything to do with the Supreme Court verdict," said PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar. He noted that the PPP-led government had appealed on Sharif's behalf.
But that's not the public's perception, particularly in Punjab Province, the power base of Sharif's PML-N party. The government's decision to implement direct rule over Punjab in the wake of the decision rankled.
"It shows they have no love for democracy," Saba Jamil, a Lahore resident reacting to the barring of lawmakers from the provincial assembly. "What's the difference now between Zardari and Musharraf?"
A main street, Mall Road, was shut for trading as protesters chanted slogans and tore down posters of Zardari – though they mostly avoided touching depictions of Benazir Bhutto, his late wife and a former prime minister. Smoke from burning tires billowed into the sky.
Efforts by the US to work closely with Zardari have also eaten away at popular support for the government, say some experts.
"The kind of support he's getting out of Washington is making him more reckless," says Asma Jehangir, a prominent activist lawyer. "This kind of support for individuals within the government by the US is extremely unhelpful."
Popular perception in Pakistan is that Washington actually prefers working through a leader like Zardari, who has weakened public support, because such leaders are more reliant on US support.
But the ability of Zardari to chip away at the central concern of Washington – the militant havens along the Afghan border – is deeply diminished by his lack of popularity, argues Khalid Rahman, director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad.
"While Zardari has been trying to appease whatever pressure has been coming from outside, as far as the ground situation is concerned, he can't expect a sustained resolution of the issues from an unpopular government and unpopular ruler," says Mr. Rahman.
Pakistan's internal politics have already affected efforts to combat the Taliban with the controversial truce struck earlier this month in Swat in exchange for implementing Islamic law. The regional party that rules the restive North West Frontier Province threatened to withdraw from its coalition with the PPP if the central government didn't sign off on the plan, says Ismail Khan, Peshawar bureau chief for the English-language newspaper Dawn.
How the situation unfolds from here depends largely on the impact of next month's marches, says Rahman. One possibility is that the protests will compel the government to remove all of Musharraf's appointed judges and restore those he sacked. If that doesn't happen, he sees the possibility of fresh elections and a new government within four to six months.