ISLAMABAD // The potentially explosive revival of a vendetta between Pakistan's leading political dynasties, dating back to the 1980s, could dangerously undermine the country's fledgling 21st century democracy, which is already besieged by spiralling violence and economic disaster. For more than 20 years, two families have held the balance of civilian power: the Bhuttos, now headed by Asif Ali Zardari, the current president, and the Sharifs, led by Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister. They stand at daggers drawn, following a Feb 25 ruling by the Supreme Court, widely considered loyal to Mr Zardari, disqualifying Mr Sharif and his younger sibling, Shahbaz, the, now former, chief minister of Punjab province, from holding public office. The Supreme Court gave no legal rationale for the ruling, although a decision against the Sharifs seemed inevitable after they refused to appear or employ lawyers to respond to the petitions challenging their eligibility to contest elections, on grounds of their conviction in separate criminal cases. Mr Sharif has vowed to oust Mr Zardari through a campaign of civil disobedience. Cabinet ministers loyal to Mr Zardari have responded with threats to prosecute Mr Sharif for sedition if a five-day series of protests, scheduled to converge on Islamabad on March 16, erupts into violence. Police raided the homes of Sharif loyalists yesterday, arresting members of parliament in Lahore, while MPs in Islamabad have gone into hiding. Reason has rarely prevailed in relations between the Bhuttos and Sharifs, who have vied for power since the Aug 1988 death of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator who had sacked and executed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the former prime minister who ruled Pakistan for six years until 1977, when Gen Zia overthrew him in a coup. Groomed by Gen Zia as his heir apparent, Mr Sharif led an alliance of right-wing parties cobbled together by the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate to undermine the recently elected government of Benazir Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's daughter, who came to power after Gen Zia's death in 1988. That alliance targeted Mr Zardari, who had married Ms Bhutto a year earlier, as her Achilles' heel. Memorably, Mr Sharif's then media adviser, Hussain Haqqani, dubbed Mr Zardari "Mister 10 per cent", accusing him of taking kickbacks from government contracts and massive corruption.
Mr Haqqani later switched sides and currently serves as Pakistan's ambassador to the US, but the popular perception he helped create persists until now. Indeed, it is a hallmark of Mr Zardari's politics that he has sought to win over the politicians and civil servants used by rivals, including Mr Sharif, to prosecute him after each of Ms Bhutto's terms as prime minister. A poignant example is his governing coalition with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) - a party that dominates the cities of southern Sindh province and counter balances the PPP's dominance of rural areas. After the Feb 2008 elections, the two set aside 20 years of enmity, averting the risk of political bloodshed in the southern cities of Karachi and Hyderabad. Conversely, Mr Sharif has a history of playing for broke. During his two terms in office, he sought to depose two presidents, a Supreme Court chief justice and three Army chiefs, the last, in Oct 1999, leading to a coup and nine years of military-supervised rule by Pervez Musharraf. As politicians of a country where resilience in the face of persecution and adversity has often determined the winner, the respective reactions of Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif to past imprisonment offers a crystal ball peek at the future - that they will both remain powerful figures in Pakistan's political landscape, no matter who prevails in the current crisis. Mr Zardari has spent 11 of the past 20 years in jail, mostly in solitary confinement. They included a horrific beating in 1992 at Karachi's Landhi jail, during which his tongue was almost severed with scissors. After his 2007 release by Mr Musharraf, doctors in the US diagnosed him as suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and dementia; results of the brutal treatment meted out to him in prison.
He has since displayed a penchant for forming political alliances in which the cosignatories are given a fair share of power but stand to lose a great deal if they break ranks. Mr Sharif spent about a year in jail, the latter half in solitary confinement at the military's Attock Fort dungeon, where jailers would torment him by placing meals in the courtyard in front of his cell, serving them only after dust and insects settled into the food. Mr Sharif agreed to 10 years of exile in Saudi Arabia after Lebanese and Saudi officials interceded on his behalf. He was lost to Pakistani politics until 2007, making his comeback by supporting the lawyers' movement to restore Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice sacked by Mr Musharraf - a cause he is now championing in his rivalry against Mr Zardari. In what is no small irony, the short-term political fates of the Bhuttos and Sharifs, and their respective parties, may rest in the hands of the Chaudhries, a lesser dynasty from Punjab that has feuded with both. The clan is led by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who tussled with Mr Sharif for the patronage of Gen Zia-ul-Haq. He also formed a civilian administration in 2002 under Mr Musharraf with rebels from Mr Sharif's Muslim League party and the Bhutto's PPP. Mr Hussain is the son of Chaudhry Zahoor Elahi, a politician assassinated in 1981 by militant PPP supporters after obtaining, as a souvenir, a pen with which a Supreme Court judge wrote the death sentence of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The bloodstained car of Mr Elahi has been preserved at Natt House, the ancestral residence of the Chaudhrys, who had vowed revenge and were accused by Ms Bhutto of being co-conspirators in an Oct 2007 bombing of her cavalcade in Karachi, when she finally returned from self-imposed exile in Dubai. Desire for power, it seems, is thicker than blood: Mr Hussain is in the midst of negotiations with the Zardari and the PPP to form a coalition government in Punjab to replace the PML-N and its leaders, the Sharif brothers. firstname.lastname@example.org