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Zardari on collision course, Pakistan's turmoil worsens

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s year-old civilian government, swamped by converging security and political crises, faces mass protests in coming days because of President Asif Ali Zardari’s refusal to reinstate a judge.

Rivals hope a show of street power by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif will precipitate Zardari’s ouster, but they are probably being premature, unless, analysts say, Zardari overuses repressive tactics rather than engage in reconciliation.

“The question is how much this weakens Zardari,” said Nasim Zehra, director of current affairs for Dunya Television, as news broke of bans on right of assembly in Punjab and Sindh provinces.

“It is incredibly stupid to barricade towns, carry out midnight raids and detentions, when every action is broadcast on television within seconds,” she said.

Zardari ejected Sharif’s party from power in Punjab on February 25 after the Supreme Court ruled that neither he or his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, could stand for elected office.

The court’s decision was reached days after Sharif committed support to the lawyers’ plan for a “long march” on Islamabad to fight for the independence of the judiciary.

The protest is set to start out from Karachi and Quetta on Thursday and climax in the capital next Monday with the lawyers vowing to press ahead, despite the ban in the two provinces.

Fighting for his political life, Sharif has called people onto the streets, making his own cause part of the struggle for an independent judiciary, even talking in terms of a revolution.

Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik has warned opposition leaders they could face sedition charges if violence erupts.

Neither the army, or nuclear-armed Pakistan’s most influential ally, the United States, want further upheaval given the acute security threat from al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Zehra, a political and security analyst, doubted whether the army would initiate any move against the unpopular president, and ruled out chances of yet another military takeover in a country that has been ruled by generals for around half the time since its creation out of the partition of India in 1947.

Last week’s militant attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore showed the extent of the internal security threat.

“You can’t have politics as usual when you are facing an existential threat,” said an official close to the pro-West Zardari.

“I’m worried about the distraction factor,” he said. “I’m worried about the crisis of thought in the country.”

ECHOES OF MUSHARRAF

The febrile atmosphere in Pakistan is reminiscent of two years ago, when Zardari’s predecessor General Pervez Musharraf suspended Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in a move that led to his own downfall.

It is that unfinished business that lies at the nub of the present political turmoil.

Although Zardari’s government has reinstated 57 other judges, the lawyers’ movement is fighting for the restoration of a few more, including Chaudhry.

If Chaudhry were restored he could rule illegal Musharraf’s re-election as president in October 2007, and nullify an amnesty against graft charges that Musharraf gave Bhutto and Zardari in order to allow their return.

Parliament voted in Zardari as president last September after he forced Musharraf to resign, ending nearly nine years of military rule.

Despite that, the late Benazir Bhutto’s husband remains deeply unpopular, unable to shake off a reputation for corruption despite spending long years in jail without ever being convicted.

Many political observers privately speculate that Zardari, like Musharraf before him, will be seen as part of the problem if he provokes further confrontation instead of compromising.

In that case, political forces, including coalition allies and possibly sections of Zardari’s own Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) could withdraw support from him.

If that happens, the army might join others in advising Zardari to step down and leave Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in charge, they say.

Zardari, in his desperation to see off Sharif, has started trying to woo members of the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), or PML-Q, which used to support Musharraf.

The trouble is, according to an opinion pollster, both the PPP and PML-Q have a fraction of the public support they won in the general election a year ago.

“This has created a very unique situation, whereby the balance of forces inside the parliament is hugely different from the balance of forces in the street,” Ijaz Shafi Gilani, chairman of Gallup Pakistan.

Gilani believes Zardari needs to patch up with Sharif, given the support Sharif has in the media and among politicians.

The United States is wary of Sharif, a religious nationalist politician, because he panders to Islamist forces, and has drawn support from Jammat-e-Islami, the religious party best equipped to put people on the streets..

The army has its own reservations. As prime minister, Sharif clashed with army chiefs in the 1990s, was ousted in a military coup that brought Musharraf to power in 1999, and wants him tried for violations of the constitution.

But people, including even PPP voters, overwhelmingly sympathize with Sharif, according to a Gallup Pakistan poll.

Sixty percent backed the stand he has taken over the judge, 77 percent of people disapproved of the Sharifs’ disqualification from electoral politics, and only 14 percent supported Zardari’s dismissal of the Punjab government.

Editing by Sanjeev Miglani

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