ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: Pakistani police arrested dozens more political demonstrators Thursday after the civilian government banned a national protest march, evoking for many Pakistanis the sweeping security restrictions of the military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf.
The arrests of 60 people at an anti-government rally in Karachi on Thursday marked the second straight day in which the police rounded up protesters. On Wednesday hundreds were arrested in an unusually tough action that deepened the popular discontent with President Asif Ali Zardari, whose six months as leader of Pakistan have been marked by a worsening insurgency by Al Qaeda and the Taliban, a weak economy and what is widely perceived as rule by an accidental leader.
The ban on protests also heightened the showdown between the titans of Pakistan's politics: Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto and the head of the secular Pakistan Peoples Party, who is backed by the United States; and Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who surveys suggest is more popular among Pakistanis but whom Washington sees as less committed to quelling the insurgency in Pakistan.
The minister of information, Sherry Rehman, said late on Wednesday that the government had imposed a section of the criminal code banning rallies and had arrested supporters of Sharif to preserve law and order. She called it "unfortunate" that the measures had to be taken. An estimated 300 political activists from Sharif's party have been arrested since Tuesday, according to the home secretary of Punjab, Rao Iftikhar Ahmed.
The prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, met with the chief of the army, General Ashfaz Parvez Kayani, on Wednesday, according to the prime minister's spokesman. Kayani has indicated that after the nearly decade-long rule of Musharraf, he would prefer to keep the army out of politics. But Pakistan has a history of military takeovers when civilian governments falter, and it was possible that the army would step in if the turmoil persisted, analysts said.
Even before the ban on the march, the tensions between the Sharif and Zardari camps had been steadily increasing.
The senior official at the Ministry of Interior, Rehman Malik, a confidant of Zardari's, threatened this week to charge Sharif with sedition. He cited a speech by Sharif last Friday in which Sharif said the march was a good idea because it could result in revolution in Pakistan.
Last month, Zardari imposed executive rule on Punjab, where the brother of Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif, was the chief minister. His party held more seats in the local assembly there, and he was considered effective.
On Feb. 25, Pakistan's Supreme Court disqualified the Sharif brothers from holding elected office, a ruling that was widely interpreted as a political decision made at Zardari's behest.
Zardari's move to consolidate control and the security measures imposed Wednesday served as a catalyst to rally discontent that had been festering for months over his style of governance. Zardari inherited the mantle of the Pakistan Peoples Party after his wife, Bhutto, was assassinated in December 2007. He served 11 years in jail on allegations of corruption and murder, which he says were politically motivated but that clouded his reputation.
The party rode a sympathy vote for Bhutto to election victory in early 2008, but a coalition led by Zardari and Sharif fell apart, largely over Zardari's refusal to reinstate the former chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
Zardari's government has banned gatherings of more than four people for two weeks, but Sharif vowed Wednesday to press ahead with the national protest he is spearheading in conjunction with the lawyers' movement, which has campaigned for an independent judiciary.
That protest now appears aimed at eventually toppling the Zardari government, because the government ban is inciting the fury of many of the same groups that helped to push Musharraf from the presidency last September. The protests built steadily after Musharraf, then both the president and the army chief, dismissed the chief justice of the Supreme Court in March 2007. The ban on the national march bore echoes of Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule in November 2007, several lawyers said.
The first protesters in the nationwide march are expected to leave the city of Quetta on Thursday and converge with others from around the country on the capital, Islamabad, on Monday.
The political turmoil comes as Washington is conducting a major policy review on Pakistan and Afghanistan. The review is expected to extend more aid to the Zardari government to help it counter the insurgency that is increasingly destabilizing the nuclear-armed nation.Share and Enjoy!