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Pakistan Protest Grows, Converging on the Capital

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Nawaz Sharif under House Arrest; Army on Alert; Protesters Continue to Converge on Capital
by Juan Cole (Informed Comment)
In the midst of Pakistan's ongoing political crisis, the government of President Asaf Ali Zardari sent out highly mixed signals on Saturday and Sunday.
Lawyers take to the streets protesting the Zardari regime.
His government looked like it might be backing off its more hard line measures. The government of President Zardari pledged to appeal to the courts to lift bans on political activity imposed on Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif, leaders of the rival Pakistan Muslim League (N). It also allowed Geo TV to resume broadcasting (Geo had been critical of Zardari).

But at the same time, Zardari continued to brandish the police and the military at his opponents and their planned Monday demonstration. Zardari seems a little out of touch with political reality and with how unpopular he has been making himself, maintaining that "There is no law and order problem posed by the present protest. The long march, which will not be allowed to take place, is transitory and a one-time affair and the PPP would form its government in the Punjab in the next few days, leaving its rivals to repent."
[For complete article reference links, please see source at Informed Comment.]
Sunday, March 15, 2009

In fact, the results of the Punjab Provincial elections in February of 2008 left the province divided among the Pakistan Muslim League (N-- for Nawaz) with 142 seats, the Pakistan People's Party with 109 and another branch of the Muslim League, PML-Q, with 84. Zardari cannot hope to form the government of Punjab if he lifts "governor's rule," unless the PML-Q is willing to form a coalition with the PPP, which it says it is not. The PML-Q used to support Gen. Pervez Musharraf but now is willing to make opportunistic alliances. Its leader says the province should have a unity government of all three major parties.

The breaking news Sunday morning as I write is that , according to the Urdu press, the government has placed Nawaz Sharif under house arrest in Model Town, Lahore. Similar restrictions had earlier been placed for 72 hours on other opposition leaders, including former cricketer Imran Khan (now leader of the Tahrik-i Insaf or Justice Movement party) and Qazi Husain Ahmad, leader of the Jama'at-i Islami, the major Muslim fundamentalist party. They are now being extended to dissidents such as Aitizaz Ahsan, a prominent attorney from a reformist wing of the ruling Pakistan People's Party.

Nawaz Sharif's brother, the deposed chief minister of Punjab Province, appears to have eluded the police and managed to get to Rawalpindi, the twin city of the capital of Islamabad. (When you go there, you are struck that Rawalpindi is the real city, bustling and dynamic, while Islamabad is an artificial and monumental place with far too much distance between things to be organic). But he was promptly put under house arrest at the mansion of Chaudhry Tanvir, presumably a supporter. The Sharif brothers, from a family of Lahori steel magnates, are leaders of the right of center Pakistan Muslim League (N). The "N" stands for Nawaz, since this branch of the Muslim League supports him.

The point of the government's heavy-handed intervention against its critics is to prevent them from addressing big crowds of attorneys and other protesters, who are making their way to the capital for a planned mass rally on Monday. Originally, the protesters had planned to gather along a single route, on a "Long March," but because the police have prevented the procession from moving forward en masse, the organizers are now calling on demonstrators to just go to the capital from their home towns and cities.

The demonstration on Monday was planned for the purpose of demanding the reinstatement of deposed Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was dismissed (twice) by former military dictator Pervez Musharraf in 2007. It is thought that one trigger for Musharraf's move against him was his demand that the government produce in court large numbers of Pakistanis who had been made to disappear by the Musharraf security forces and denied habeas corpus, as part of the Bush-Musharraf "war on terror." Musharraf was also afraid, in fall of 2007, that Chaudhry would prevent him from becoming a civilian president (the Pakistani constitution requires that a military man have been out of the service for two years before becoming president; Musharraf had declared himself president by plebiscite-- he did not allow anyone to run against him-- while still in uniform, in 2002.

Nawaz Sharif had returned from exile in Saudi Arabia to contest the elections planned for winter, 2008, and initially threatened to boycott because Musharraf dismissed the supreme court and installed hand-picked cronies in their place, and Sharif said he did not see how legitimate elections could be held in the absence of a rule of law. The attorneys and politicians who have ever since been demanding Chaudhry's reinstatement (and that of other judges whom Musharraf had high-handedly fired) also keep insisting on a rule of law.

On the other side of the ledger, Chaudhry did sign off on Musharraf's 1999 coup against then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and was appointed chief justice by the military dictator in 2005, so I'm confused as to how he is a symbol of the rule of law. He was complicit in a lawless, praetorian regime.

Jason Burke correctly points out that Pakistan, for all its considerable problems, is not a failed state and is likely not about to implode, and that there is no prospect of scruffy tribal Taliban marching into its gleaming capital to take control of its nuclear arsenal-- etc., etc. What is going on in Pakistan is just party politics mixed with street politics.

Some readers complained when I called the Muslim League a big landlord party. Obviously, any big political party has all kinds of people in it, and a lot of middle class Punjabis support the PMLN. But the policies of the party when it was in power twice in the 1990s supported the interests of persons of large property, and tried to move the country closer to Islamic law. The Pakistan People's Party, its main rival, also does have landlords, but it has been more open in the past to having a large public sector and has often championed the interests of the less well off, and its leaders opposed Sharif's demarche on behalf of sharia.
When interpreting the politics of one country to another, one paints in broad strokes. I think it is generally accurate to say that PPP has been left of center and more secular, while the Muslim League has been socially and religiously more conservative. I mean, it is not as if Nawaz Sharif is a member of the Socialist International. And the PPP, like the US Democratic Party, supports elements of the workers, the middle classes, and the wealthy--it is a mass party after all.

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