ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, bowed to international pressure last night to defuse a political deadlock that has paralysed the country. After the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called Mr Zardari and his prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, yesterday, the president last night offered key concessions to his political rival, Nawaz Sharif, in a bid to defuse the worst political crisis of his rule.
The government will also appeal a court ruling against Mr Sharif and his brother that triggered the present crisis. A presidential spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, said the appeal will probably be filed with the Supreme Court this week. Last month the Supreme Court had disqualified the Sharifs from elected office in Punjab province. Yet the crisis is not over: Mr Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), the second biggest party in the country, which walked out of the government over a refusal to honour a deadline to reinstate judges, said it would wait for action not words; and opposition party activists and lawyers are still planning to march on Islamabad tomorrow to demand that Mr Zardari act on promises to reinstate the judges, who were sacked by Pervez Musharraf, Mr Zardari's predecessor, in 2007.
The opposition has been locked in a stand-off with the authorities, which has detained hundreds of activists, banned protests across the country and blockaded marchers from leaving key cities towards the capital, Islamabad. Mr Zardari's office announced that Mr Gilani and he agreed that the "issue of judiciary and restoration of judges would be resolved in accordance with the principles laid down in the charter of democracy".
That document, signed in 2006 by Mr Zardari's widow, Benazir Bhutto, and Mr Sharif, both of whom were former prime ministers, pledged to restore democracy, avoid confrontation and abolish the role of the military in politics. Mr Zardari has reneged on three written promises to reinstate the judges. Senior US and British diplomats had met all parties in recent days in an effort to work out a compromise, concerned that more political upheaval will yet again distract the country's leadership from confronting a growing al Qa'eda and Taliban-inspired campaign of violence.
Mr Zardari's position has grown weaker as his remote, authoritarian style of leadership has alienated him within the ranks of his own party. Last night a prominent senior minister, Sherry Rehman, resigned her cabinet position as head of the information ministry. The government ordered the military on alert before opposition protests begin in the capital. Lawyers, who are spearheading the so-called Long March, insist that the president honour his pledge to restore the former Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was sacked by the former military ruler, Mr Musharraf.
The lawyers, judges and their supporters, who are backed by Mr Sharif, had planned to begin a series of marches on Thursday, all converging tomorrow in Islamabad. The government ordered massive arrests on Wednesday to try to put a stop to the marches, but the protests have persisted. The government insists that by coming together in Islamabad for a mass sit-in in front of parliament, the opposition will paralyse the administration and present a target for terrorists.
Authorities yesterday blocked the main boulevard leading to parliament with metal shipping containers and said they would protect nearby foreign embassies as well. The area is already a high-security zone. An army spokesman, Major Gen Athar Abbas, said the government put the army on notice in case troops might be needed to protect "sensitive areas" in the capital and elsewhere. Police have temporarily detained scores of activists across the country, including five people at a gathering of hundreds of lawyers and Sharif supporters yesterday in the central city of Multan.
"So far our attitude is soft, but we can change our strategy," said Ali Ahmad Kurd, the leader of the country's lawyers movement, said in Quetta after authorities were alleged to have prevented him from boarding a plane to the eastern city of Lahore. "When one path is blocked, God opens 100 others, and we will reach Lahore and then Islamabad," said Mr Kurd, whose road convoy was turned back by police on Friday.
The opposition is also demanding that Mr Sharif be restored to power in the pivotal province of Punjab, from which he was removed two weeks ago by Mr Zardari. Mr Zardari is reported to have agreed to allow Mr Sharif's party, the PML-N, to retake control of the Punjab province, but he has refused to restore the chief justice. The prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, was last night locked in talks with Mr Zardari to resolve the crisis.
Mr Zardari and his close coterie of aides held their position in a contest of brinkmanship characteristic of Pakistani politics. However, such is the international pressure on Mr Zardari to reach a compromise, that some sort of deal seemed inevitable. The situation echoed a similar stand-off in the presidency last year when the military ruler, Mr Musharraf, appeared to be the last man in the country to realise that he must step down from office.
Mr Zardari is reluctant to restore Mr Chaudhry because he opposed an amnesty granted by Gen Musharraf that absolved him of charges relating to the embezzlement of millions of dollars during his wife's two tenures. email@example.com * With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse