March 1, 2009 / 8:50 AM / 10 years ago

Zardari's party eyes power in key Pakistan province

LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - President Asif Ali Zardari’s party aims to take over in Pakistan’s most important province but a wrangle with its main rival will not spill onto the streets, a top party official said on Sunday.

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari speaks during a news conference in Istanbul in this December 5, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Nuclear-armed Pakistan, beset by security and economic woes, appeared set for a power struggle after a Supreme Court ruling last week brought down the Punjab province government controlled by opposition leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif is Zardari’s main rival. His supporters have clashed with police and Zardari’s supporters while protesting against Wednesday’s court ruling, which effectively barred Sharif and his politician brother Shahbaz from elected office.

“Yes, we are in a position (to form the government in Punjab),” said Qasim Zia, a top official in Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and a likely candidate for chief minister of the most populous and influential of Pakistan’s four provinces.

“We’ll try our luck and try to get into the position we want,” Zia said.

The court disqualified Shahbaz Sharif from holding the office of chief minister of Punjab. Zardari then imposed central rule, known as governor’s rule, in Punjab for two months and threw out the provincial government of the Sharifs’ Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) party.

The balance of power in the province is with the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q), which was carved out of Sharif’s party by former president Pervez Musharraf to back his rule. PML-Q politicians are being wooed by both sides to form a government once governor’s rule ends.

“New alignments and new alliances are in the offing so let’s see who goes where ... I’m quite hopeful,” said Zia.

The Sharifs have said they command the necessary majority.

“POLITICAL GAME”

A showdown between Zardari, widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif has been brewing since they forced former army chief Musharraf to quit as president last August.

If the country descends into chaos, the military, which has ruled for more than half of the country’s 61 years of independence, could be forced to step in.

But Zia played down fears of confrontation between the country’s two biggest parties.

“I think it will be resolved in less than a month,” he said.

“The assembly is working, governor’s rule is going to be lifted, the leader of the house will be elected and the government will run smoothly,” he said, adding relatively small numbers had come out despite Nawaz Sharif’s calls for protests.

“I don’t think there will be any street problems, they can hardly muster any support,” he said.

The Sharifs have thrown their backing behind anti-government lawyers organizing a cross-country protest that is expected to end with a sit-in outside parliament in the middle of this month.

The lawyers are campaigning for the reinstatement of the country’s former top judge, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was dismissed by Musharraf in 2007.

Zia said Sharif had invited “religious extremists” to join the protest.

“This is what Nawaz is doing and that is not good for Pakistan ... It is just a political game, they are not for the judiciary,” he said.

Sharif, visiting a religious school in Lahore on Sunday, said he was not interested in regaining power. “My agenda is to end social injustice ... If we restore the judiciary, all problems will be resolved,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Editing by Paul Tait

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