Political crisis escalates in Pakistan
By Paul Wiseman, USA TODAY, March 11, 2009
A political crisis in Pakistan escalated Monday when the government threatened to bring treason charges against the main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif. USA TODAY's Asia correspondent Paul Wiseman explains why the crisis could pose dangers for a nuclear-armed country struggling with terrorist strikes and an insurgency by Taliban militants.
Q: How serious is the crisis?
A: Sharif is calling on Pakistanis to participate in a five-day anti-government march on the capital starting Thursday. That raises the prospect of thousands of people taking to the streets at a time when President Asif Ali Zardari's popularity is low because of economic problems and terrorist attacks.
"People should rise and join the long march to Islamabad to save Pakistan," Sharif said Monday. "The emotion I am seeing here is a prelude to a revolution."
The government is worried enough that Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said Monday that if violence breaks out during the march, Sharif and other opposition leaders could face sedition charges.
Q: What impact could the crisis have on U.S. interests in the region?
A: Zardari's government can't afford distractions now. Last week, militants ambushed a visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, killing seven people despite heavy security — and showing the world they can strike just about anywhere in Pakistan.
After the attack, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed support for Zardari's efforts to stop the "encroachment" of militant groups. She also said the Obama administration sees Pakistan's problems as inseparable from the war in Afghanistan. Taliban militants who were ousted by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 are using Pakistani territory as a base as they step up attacks against U.S. troops.
Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said bickering between Pakistan's political parties "opens up more opportunities for extremists" by discrediting democratic politics and giving terrorists a chance to detonate suicide bombings at massive public protests.
Q: What's behind the political standoff?
A: Years of bad blood. Zardari's secular, left-leaning Peoples Party and Sharif's conservative, religious Pakistan Muslim League have a history of enmity. They spent the 1990s fighting for power — each governed the country for two stormy, corruption-ridden terms — until army chief Pervez Musharraf staged a coup in 1999.
Last year, Sharif and Zardari briefly agreed to set aside their differences and form a unity government. But any hopes for a new era of democratic stability in Pakistan faded by August, when Sharif pulled out of the coalition.
The situation got even worse last month, when a court banned Sharif and his brother from running for public office. That enraged Sharif, who accused Zardari of forcing the court's decision.
Q: Who might participate in the protest?
A: A wide array of aggrieved opposition leaders have said they will take part.
Imran Khan, a former cricket star, said police attacked the offices of his small political party Sunday, sending two party workers to the hospital in what he alleges is a government campaign to intimidate people before the march.
"They're petrified of seeing a lot of people in the streets," Khan said. "The government has pushed us into a corner."
Another group that could participate: Pakistan's influential lawyers. In 2007, newspapers around the world ran images of men in suits and ties whose protests against Musharraf's government eventually contributed to his decision to resign. Now, Sharif has called on the lawyers to join his protest because Zardari has broken a promise to reinstate judges whom Musharraf fired.
Q: Could Pakistan's government collapse?
A: Throughout Pakistan's 62-year existence, the military has traditionally stepped in when civilian governments were weak. Analysts are divided as to whether that could happen again soon.
"I see chaos, and as the chaos lengthens and intensifies, I see two possibilities," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences. "One is the military directly takes over, the other is it carries out some form of intervention and tells the leaders to mend their fences or else."
Abbas said a return to military rule is unlikely. Musharraf's unpopular rule dented the military's reputation and at least for a while diminished its appetite for political power, he said.
The United States has said democracy is the best way to solve Pakistan's political problems. State Department spokesman Noel Clay declined to comment on the political crisis Monday, saying it was an "internal matter" for Pakistan.
Wiseman reported from Hong Kong. Contributing: Ken Dilanian in Washington, the Associated Press.
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