Pakistan protests: Pitch rises

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

Mohsin Raza/Reuters
Crackdown: A protester in Lahore scuffled with police Sunday during an antigovernment march.
Pakistan Muslim Leaguer
Opposition: Pakistan Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif defied house arrest Sunday to join the protests.

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

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.

An agreement forged between Zardari's late wife, Benazzir Bhutto, and Mr. Sharif, called for the removal of that presidential authority as well as the restoration of judges sacked by Musharraf. Neither promise has been fulfilled by Zardari, who took over PPP leadership after his wife was assassinated in late 2007.

"The system has not changed, only the faces have changed. People don't respect the legitimacy of the government, and it doesn't matter if it was an elected government," says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Sunday's protests suggested the extent of that disillusionment is widespread – though it may be mostly concentrated in Punjab Province, where Lahore and the capital, Islamabad, are located.

In Lahore, support for Sharif drew out backers of his PML-N party, who thronged his car after he broke free from house arrest. Other parties also turned out, from the religious Jamaat-i-Islami to the Communist Party.

At midday, police began firing tear gas shells, dispersing crowds, who then regrouped. Some protesters retaliated by kicking police vehicles.

Pressure from the protests resulted in the resignation of Lahore's deputy attorney general. Within the PPP, three high-profile members have departed since the lawyer's "long march" began Thursday. The most dramatic departure came Friday when Information Minister Sherry Rehman left the government without explanation. Ms. Rehman resigned soon after cable channel Geo reported efforts by the government to block and move its signal.

So far, though, there hasn't been a mass exodus of PPP senior members. Even the head of the lawyers movement, Ahsan Aitzaz, said Sunday that he remains in the party.

Most political parties in Pakistan are not internally democratic enough to allow for a revolt against an unpopular leader, says Mr. Rizvi. "The party leadership is confined to a small group of people," he says, noting that parties have "feudal" loyalties to personalities.

Nor are other parties jockeying to take down the PPP, perhaps recognizing that such a power struggle could bring the Army back, says Rizvi. That shows some maturing of the parties, he adds.

That leaves the people in the streets as the final check on the government, he continues. "This is also a phase of checks and balances. These protesters are demanding only what the PPP had promised."

The government will either have to accept those demands, says Professor Rais, or risk paralyzing the country indefinitely and "hope that foreign observers and the military will remain neutral."

Over the weekend US officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, spoke with leaders here about the situation. "They are telling them to get their act together, so I don't think this confrontation will last long," says Rais.

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