x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Protest march turns heat on Zardari

Pakistan's president braced for a final day of anti-government marches last night as protesters clashed with police.

Islamabad // Pakistan's president, Asif Zardari, was bracing for a final day of anti-government marches last night as protesters clashed with police and dissent grew within the ranks of his own political party. Mr Zardari, the co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), has refused to bow under intense pressure to diffuse a political deadlock that has paralysed the country.

PPP's one year in power in Pakistan has been stifled by a struggle between the government and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Yesterday lawyers and opposition party supporters clashed with police in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, Mr Sharif's political stronghold. During the fifth day of unrest, several thousand protesters, many of them members of the Jamaat-e-Islami religious opposition party, gathered outside the city's high court.

Police detained hundreds of lawyers and opposition activists in a crackdown launched on Wednesday to prevent their "long march" protest that is expected to climax with a sit-in outside parliament in Islamabad today. Mr Sharif was placed under house arrest for three days at his residence in Lahore. However, he said the order was "illegal" and called for a rally in the city centre. "These are the decisive moments," said Mr Sharif. "I tell every Pakistani youth that this is not the time to stay home; Pakistan is calling you to come and save me."

A senior lawyer and protest organiser, Aitzaz Ahsan, was detained at his house in Lahore. Police have barricaded Islamabad by blocking all roads into the city with shipping containers and deploying checkpoints and hundreds of police throughout the city. Senior US and British diplomats have met all parties in recent days in an effort to work out a compromise, fearing 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.

"The message that he will be hopefully getting is that his legitimacy is increasingly in question and he is fighting a losing battle," said a senior western diplomat. However, Mr Zardari insisted he would only negotiate once the Long March had blown over. A senior PPP figure close to Mr Zardari, who is the widower of the assassinated former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, said: "Mr Zardari may have a popularity problem but he does not have a power problem."

The official said the PPP had not lost the support of its political allies in parliament but conceded that Mr Zardari had an "image problem". "Mr Zardari has calculated that the army will not intervene and that he will win this one," he added. The all-powerful army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kiyani, has petitioned the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, to push Mr Zardari to resolve the crisis. There were reports of strained relations between the prime minister and the president. Two senior ministers, including Sherry Rehman, the former information minister, have resigned during the crisis.

Mr Zardari's head of the interior ministry, Rehman Malik, has issued increasingly surreal statements, claiming the president enjoys huge popularity and that his government has been "facilitating" the protesters". The army wishes to remain in the background as it was tarnished by eight years of direct rule under the former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf. However, senior generals want to purge Pakistani politics of the corruption and inept political leadership of the two main political parties by ushering in a caretaker government with a handpicked cabinet.

Gen Kiyani has so far resisted the idea, giving the civilian government time to resolve the crisis or to fail. Mr Zardari assumed office after enlisting Mr Sharif's aid to oust Mr Musharraf last year. His close aide said in an interview Washington and the army did not want to see Mr Sharif return to power as he was too close to Islamist conservatives. "Mr Zardari's aim is to show that it is Sharif who is intransigent and that he has no actual plan," he said. "The only option [Sharif] is paving the way for is for the military to re-take power."

Mr Sharif and the lawyers, who are spearheading the so-called Long March, insist that the president must honour his pledge to restore the former chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was sacked by Mr Musharraf. Mr Zardari is reluctant to restore Mr Chaudhry as he opposed an amnesty granted by Mr Musharraf that absolved the incumbent president of charges relating to the embezzlement of millions of dollars during his wife's two tenures.

The opposition also demands that Mr Sharif be restored to power in the pivotal province of Punjab, from where his party was removed two weeks ago by Mr Zardari. Mr Zardari has reportedly agreed to allow the PML-N to re-take control of the Punjab province but he has refused to restore the chief justice. iwilkinson@thenational.ae