Islamabad, Pakistan - As the political crisis deepens in Pakistan, President Asif Ali Zardari offered an olive branch Saturday night to his main opposition rival, Nawaz Sharif. But the gesture failed to peel away Mr. Sharif's backing for a growing protest movement led by the nation's lawyers.
Instead, Mr. Zardari appears to face discontent within his own party following his government's efforts to suppress the protests.
Three high-profile members of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) have broken ranks since the start of the lawyers‚ "long march" on Thursday.
The most dramatic departure came late Friday when Information Minister Sherry Rehman left the government without explanation. Ms. Rehman, a former journalist, resigned not long after the private cable TV channel Geo reported efforts by the government to block and move its signal.
Demonstrators gathered in front of the press clubs in Islamabad and Rawalpindi Saturday to show solidarity for journalists. The government has declared a ban on public gatherings, but police in and around the capital have not cracked down yet. Other suppression efforts include the arrest of activists and opposition party members, and the positioning of truck containers on roads to seal off access to the capital.
For some Pakistanis, these actions echo the efforts to stave off the return of civilian democratic rule during the waning days of the former military regime.
"I'm very surprised [Mr. Zardari] is using the same tactics because he was democratically elected. [Pervez] Musharraf was a dictator," says Mubeen Abbasi, a businessman attending an antigovernment rally Saturday in Islamabad. The rally, like others around the capital, was small – numbering in the hundreds – but drew from a cross section of civil society here.
BIGGER SHOWDOWN SUNDAY
The size of the demonstrations is expected to grow dramatically on Sunday. Then, the lawyers march that began in the southern cities of Quetta and Karachi earlier in the week, will be focused on Lahore – the heartland of Sharif's support.
While on the streets and in the lawyers' offices of the capital it's common to meet disillusioned People's Party voters, party officials deny there's serious discontent in the ranks.
"To the best of my knowledge the PPP is in tact and standing firmly behind the party leader," says Abida Hussain, a member of the party's executive committee.
She says she had heard several weeks ago that the new Information Minister might be given that post, suggesting that the resignation of Ms. Rehman had been in the cards long before the march.
IS ZARDARI DEMOCRACTIC ?
Asked whether the detentions of activists gave her second thoughts about her party, Ms. Hussain says "we're a democratic party, and anybody who is democratic-minded doesn't like roundups – if they have happened."
On the other hand, she says, comments by Sharif and his brother about taking to the streets would leave any government with tough choices. "It's not pretty, it's not comfortable. I wish it weren't happening, but it's a reaction to assertions that are really beyond what is the democratic way of doing things."
Sharif began taking a more aggressive stance against the Zardari government following a court decision in Lahore that disqualified him and his brother from holding political office. But he has remained consistent in saying his central demand is the same as he lawyers's: The restoration of former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary to the Supreme Court. Zardari has so far refused to do this – offering instead Saturday to have the court rehear the case that disqualified the Sharifs.
Siddique ul-Farooque, the spokesman for Sharif's party, dismissed the offer as a means to "divert the attention of the public from the long march."
He says Zardari is trying to make it look like the Sharifs are protesting "because of their personal affairs." In fact, he adds, Sharif simply wants the PPP to live up to its promises, including the restoration of judges sacked under the military dictatorship.