ISLAMABAD: Hopes for a compromise between the Pakistani government and its protesting opponents faded on Saturday with President Asif Ali
Zardari refusing to cave in to pressure, a senior government official said.
A protest campaign by lawyers and opposition parties for an independent judiciary threatens to bring turmoil to nuclear-armed Pakistan as its year-old civilian government struggles to stem surging Islamist militancy and to revive a flagging economy.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has been promoting a compromise package involving concessions to the main opposition party, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and the judiciary.
But Zardari, widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was standing firm, at least until after the climax early next week of a nationwide “long march” protest by lawyers and opposition activists.
“From what I know, President Zardari has made it clear: ‘I am not going to negotiate under pressure. Mr Sharif has to abandon the ‘long march’,” said the senior government official, who declined to be identified.
The News newspaper said Zardari had rejected a compromise package backed by the United States and Britain, whose top diplomats have consulted both sides in recent days.
Zardari would only consider the reconciliation formula after Monday, when the long march is due to end with a sit-in outside parliament in Islamabad, the newspaper said.
Pakistan’s efforts to eliminate Taliban and al Qaeda enclaves on the Afghan border are vital to US plans to stabilise Afghanistan and defeat al Qaeda. The last thing the United States wants to see is Pakistan consumed by turmoil.
If the crisis gets out of hand, the army, which has ruled for more than half the country’s 61 years of history, could feel compelled to intervene in some way, though most analysts say a military takeover is highly unlikely.
Police have detained hundreds of lawyers and opposition activists since a crackdown was launched on Wednesday in a bid to stifle the protest.
Nevertheless, black-suited lawyers and flag-waving activists launched the protest in Karachi and Quetta on Thursday, aiming to head to Islamabad, picking up support along the way.
But authorities have effectively broken up the procession with the detentions, bans on rallies and road blocks.
The protesters’ main demand is the reinstatement of former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was dismissed in 2007 by the then president and army chief Pervez Musharraf.
Zardari has refused to reinstate the judge, seeing him as a threat to his own position.
Despite the crackdown, the protesters have vowed to press on with rallies in Lahore on Sunday and Islamabad the next day.
“The long march can’t be stopped,” Ali Ahmed Kurd, president of Supreme Court bar association, told reporters in Quetta, where authorities have kept him and other protesters bottled up.
Police detained activists trying to stage a protest in the city of Multan while several hundred lawyers rallied at the city’s bar association.
Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik urged the protesters not to try to march on parliament, adding security agencies had information “enemies of Pakistan” would launch suicide bomb attacks on the protest.
As tension rises so does worry about military intervention. Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, an avowed constitutionalist, met both Zardari and Gilani on Friday.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the American PBS network, he doubted Kayani would intervene: “I don’t think that possibility is out there as a high probability right now, but certainly it’s a concern.”
Meanwhile, at least one television station known for its opposition to Zardari said authorities had interfered with its broadcasts through cable operators.
That evoked memories of Musharraf, who clamped down on the media in 2007, although the state broadcasting agency denied any interference.
Reports said Information Minister Sherry Rehman had resigned in response to the action against the media but a presidential aide denied that. Rehman was not available for comment.