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Deja-vu in Pakistan crackdown

Protests in Multan
Police arrest opposition supporters in Multan

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

The latest wave of arrests in Pakistan's most populous province, Punjab, has brought an unwelcome feeling that this has all been seen before.

Governments in the past have done this and more to prevent opposition groups from destabilising the system, often with unsavoury results.

But unlike in the past, when the army had carte blanche to step in, either as the arbiter of political power or as a direct aspirant, the situation this time is far murkier and more dangerous.

The army has lost much of its credibility as an efficient fighting force or as an able administrator.

In the past eight years it has been widely seen as having failed to curb the militant menace in spite of having been adequately paid to do so by the international community.

Nawaz Sharif trained his guns on the president, saying that Gen Musharraf's spirit had 'infused into Zardari'

When the military ruler, Gen Pervez Musharraf, finally quit, he left the country politically fragmented, economically destitute and exposed to the militant threat.

That is why his political allies were soundly beaten in the 2008 elections.

They delivered a split mandate in favour of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N), two bitter rivals from the 1990s who showed signs they had grown wiser.

That may not be the case any more.

Mandate

After a perfect start a year ago, the PPP's Asif Ali Zardari and the PML-N's Nawaz Sharif have drifted apart on the issue of the restoration of judges who were sacked by then President Musharraf in November 2007.

Nawaz Sharif
Nawaz Sharif is locked in a feud with President Zardari
Their differences became more stark last month when a court declared that Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz were ineligible to hold elected office.

The differences over the restoration of judges are political in nature.

Without saying it in so many words, the PPP made it known to the PML-N and others concerned that the transfer of power back to civilian rule in March 2008 required an agreement that Mr Musharraf would not face further action against him.

Restoring the judges would challenge that.

But Nawaz Sharif considered this contrary to his election mandate.

Many in Pakistan believe that Mr Sharif considers the restoration of the judges the first step towards laying a legal trap for Mr Musharraf, who had toppled Mr Sharif's government in a military coup in 1999.

Mr Sharif continued to press for the judges' restoration and quit the federal government in May 2008, accusing Mr Zardari - who had then been elected president - of being "insincere".

The government did try to wean the Sharifs from protesting lawyers with political offers, but with little success.

Then came the court verdict on the Sharifs. Shahbaz Sharif was deposed as chief minister of the PML-N stronghold in Punjab province.

The Sharifs strengthened their ties further with the protesting lawyers.

Army role

Nawaz Sharif trained his guns on the president, saying that Gen Musharraf's spirit had "infused into Zardari".

Protest in Islamabad
There are fears of more violent political protests
The government has responded by making it known that it would like to form its own administration in Punjab.

It may not allow the PML-N to come back to power in the country's largest and politically most influential province, which accounts for two-thirds of its military and bureaucracy.

The general view is that both sides have gone too far to retrace their steps and assume a conciliatory posture, at least for the time being.

In the past, governments have been able to contain violent protests through administrative means, but have generally failed to overcome the fallout.

What role will the army play?

One thing is for sure - all of the political elements, even if they are feuding, see the number one enemy as a politically active military.


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