Reuters - Former Pakistani prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif was detained on Sunday as a political crisis intensified a year after an election returned the country to civilian rule.
Sharif is backing a lawyers’ “long march” protest, putting him in confrontation with President Asif Ali Zardari, who is refusing the lawyers’ main demand for the restoration of a former top judge dismissed by former president Pervez Musharraf.
Pakistani action against al Qaeda and Taliban militants is vital to U.S. plans to stabilise Afghanistan and the United States is worried that the crisis is distracting Pakistan just as Afghan fighting is expected to pick up with the end of winter.
Following are some scenarios for the nuclear-armed country which is also struggling to stem Islamist militancy and revive a flagging economy:
As well as Sharif, police have detained hundreds of lawyers and opposition activists since a crackdown was launched on Wednesday in a bid to stifle plans by lawyers and opposition parties for a “long march” protest due to reach a climax in Islamabad on Monday.
Authorities have already succeeded in thwarting plans for a cross-country protest procession and the clampdown could see the protest simply fizzle out over the next day or two. Zardari’s allies say Sharif never had that much support for agitation.
However, in the absence of a resolution of Sharif’s grievances, which include a Supreme Court ruling last month that barred him from elected office and saw his party thrown out of power in Punjab province, he will not give up his campaign against Zardari. Similarly, anti-government lawyers have vowed to press on with their agitation until former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is restored. Sporadic protests, backed by vociferous supporters in the media, would go on.
PROTESTS GET OUT OF HAND
A worst-case scenario could arise if government efforts to stifle the protests fail and demonstrations snowball, leading to bloody clashes on the streets. Violence by Islamist militants intent on accelerating a descent into chaos can never be ruled out. Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said on Saturday security agencies had information that “enemies of Pakistan” would launch suicide bomb attacks during the protest march.
In the event of serious violence -- either between protesters and security forces or by militants -- the army, which has ruled for more than half the country’s 61 years of history, could feel compelled to intervene in some way, although most analysts say a military takeover is highly unlikely.
Analysts say army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is committed to supporting Pakistan’s rocky transition to civilian-led democracy and Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the American PBS network on Friday that Kayani was unlikely to launch a military takeover to end the political crisis.
Serious violence could also expose fissures in Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party and undermine his position.
Despite the crackdown and fiery rhetoric, efforts to find a solution are going on behind the scenes with the backing of the United States and other allies. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has been promoting a compromise package involving concessions to Sharif’s party and the judiciary.
A first step towards reconciliation came on Saturday when the government said it would seek a review of a Supreme Court ruling last month that barred Sharif and his brother from elected office. The ruling nullified a by-election victory by Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, and disqualified him from holding the office of chief minister of Punjab, the most populous and influential of Pakistan’s four provinces. Sharif’s party was then thrown out of power in Punjab and Zardari imposed central rule there for two months.
A reconciliation package would end direct rule in Punjab, and the province’s assembly, where Sharif’s party controls the most seats but not a majority, would choose a chief minister.
A presidential aide said last week that under a compromise, a constitutional court and appellate court would be set up and former Supreme Court chief Chaudhry would head one of them.
A compromise, probably the most likely scenario, would cool tempers but tension would linger, especially over who controls Punjab, which both Sharif and Zardari covet. Politicians say whoever controls the province that returns more than half the members of the National Assembly controls the country, and the two biggest parties will remain in fierce competition there.