Top diplomats from the United States and the United Kingdom are trying to broker a deal between the government of Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari and chief opposition leader Nawaz Sharif amid fears that a string of protests could result in yet another military takeover.
Zahid Hussain and Jeremy Page, reporting for The Times of London,
Richard Holbrooke, the new US special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, telephoned Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s President, to discuss the unrest, which has raised fears that the army could take power once again. “Mr Holbrooke conveyed the anxiety of the US Administration over the worsening political crisis and asked the president to find ways to end the strife,” a senior Pakistani official told The Times.
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, also spoke to Mr Zardari as lawyers and opposition activists clashed with police at the start of a “long march” from major cities towards Islamabad, the capital.
The scenes nevertheless conjured memories of 2007, when Mr Musharraf tried to stop similar lawyers’ protests in a move that ultimately led to his resignation as army chief and President.
His successor as army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has kept out of politics so far, but some analysts say he is now being sucked in by the growing unrest. Military sources say the army is also upset about Mr Zardari’s decision to take control of Punjab after a Supreme Court ruling that banned Mr Sharif and his brother from elected office. General Kayani, who was on a visit to the United States when that decision was made, conveyed the army’s anxiety at a meeting with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Wednesday.
Jane Perlez of the New York Times adds:
The involvement of two senior American officials prompted speculation here that the United States was trying to broker a deal that would ease the standoff between the rivals and end the potential for violence as a coalition of opposition and citizens’ groups prepared for a march that the government had banned. The Obama administration apparently fears that the rising tensions between the politicians could further derail Pakistan’s efforts to quell a growing insurgency by Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Mr. Sharif made several demands of Mr. Zardari: remove the federal rule imposed on his home base, Punjab Province; rescind the judicial ruling that denied Mr. Sharif and his brother the right to run in elections; and restore an independent judiciary. The government has said it acted to restore law and order and subdue Mr. Sharif, whom it accused of trying to foment revolution and court Islamists to buttress his power. Mr. Sharif’s supporters accuse the government of suppressing dissent.
Many Pakistani commentators have worried that the army will oust the civilian government if the conflict between Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif persists. But Mr. Sharif said he doubted that the military under Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who served as his deputy military secretary during his first term as prime minister, would do so. “I think he is a decent man and a professional soldier,” he said.
Meanwhile, VOA News is reporting, the government has widened the ban on anti-government protests and jailing would-be demonstrators.
All of this has led to a NYT editorial titled “Closer to the Cliff.”
Pakistan’s rival political leaders seem determined to push their already unstable country over a cliff. Their increasingly out-of-control power struggle spilled out of the halls of government and the courtroom this week and onto the streets. The more time and energy they waste on selfish squabbling, the less they have to combat extremists who pose a mortal threat to their country.
President Obama and his aides are still developing a policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are pleased to see that they moved quickly on Thursday to try to defuse the crisis. The American ambassador in Islamabad spoke with Mr. Sharif, and an envoy, Richard Holbrooke, had a video conference call with Mr. Zardari.
They need to press Mr. Zardari now to compromise on the dispute over Pakistan’s courts and to allow Mr. Sharif to run for office. And they need to press Mr. Sharif to work for peaceful political solutions. If there is any hope for democracy in Pakistan, a robust opposition must be allowed to flourish and participate fully in the country’s political life.
An editorial earlier this week in Pakistan’s Daily Times titled “This is Mutiny” takes a decidedly different angle, arguing that Sharif is putting his country in a dangerous position by encouraging massive demonstrations which could get ugly. And violating the law in so doing.
But there’s not much doubt that, for anything worthy of the name democracy to exist in Pakistan, opposition parties must be allowed to use any peaceful means possible to both challenge the incumbent administration’s policies and seek to supplant them at the next election. Otherwise, frankly, it really doesn’t matter whether Pakistan’s president wears a business suit or a general’s uniform.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.