- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan’s shaky government threatened the opposition leader with sedition charges on Monday after he called for protests against the president, raising the stakes in a political crisis that threatens to weaken the country’s fight against al-Qaida and Taliban.

Lawyers and supporters of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif are vowing to blockade the parliament later this week over the refusal of President Asif Ali Zardari’s government to reinstate fired judges. Pakistan was thrown into political chaos last month when the Supreme Court barred Sharif and his brother from elected office. Since then, both men have led an increasingly vocal campaign against the government, staging near daily anti-government rallies.

Interior Minister chief Rehman Malik warned Sharif’s speeches in recent days came close to breaking the law.

“Inciting people for disobedience is sedition,” Malik told a televised media conference. “It could get life imprisonment.”

Malik said the government had “no intention” of arresting Sharif, but hinted it had grounds to do so, especially if violence broke out during the march. Any arrest of Sharif or other high-profile members of his party would be a major escalation in the crisis.

Hours earlier, Sharif told a large crowd of supporters “we cannot leave Pakistan at the mercy of Zardari,”

“People should rise and join the long march to Islamabad to save Pakistan,” he said. “The emotion I am seeing here is a prelude to a revolution.”

Malik said the government would not ban the march, but said the protesters would not be allowed to rally in front of the parliament building or other downtown areas.

Analysts and commentators fear months of political chaos. Many are predicting the military will issue the country’s squabbling civilian leaders with an ultimatum or simply step in and seize power as they have done so often in the past. Others say the crisis could lead to midterm elections or a limping, wounded government scraping by until polls in 2013.

“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.”

The Obama administration has yet to make any public statement on the crisis, but last week Britain appealed for political unity, saying the bickering was distracting the country from the “mortal threat” posed by militants like al-Qaida and the Taliban a point illustrated last week by an attack on Sri Lanka’s cricket team that killed six people.

The seeds of the political crisis date back to March 2007 when then-military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf fell out with Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and fired him, triggering nationwide protests by lawyers that helped oust Musharraf.

Zardari was elected president six months ago after his party won elections in the wake of the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto. Before his election, he publicly promised to reinstate Chaudhry and other independent-minded judges fired along with him.

He now refuses to do that, saying Chaudhry has become a political figure, though many analysts say his real reason is that he fears legal challenges to his rule, particularly concerning a deal he and his wife entered into with Musharraf that saw corruption cases against them dropped.

Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, say Zardari orchestrated the Supreme Court ruling to neutralize them.

The lawyers, Sharif’s party and several other smaller parties are vowing to drive to Islamabad on Thursday from around the country to rally in front of the parliament. They could arrive in the capital by Saturday, though authorities in Pakistan have often rounded up protest organizers in advance of demonstrations, crippling them before they begin.

A spokesman for Sharif’s party said around 100,000 people would show up, though analysts said it was hard to predict numbers, especially since the government has not made it clear to what lengths it will go to stop the rally.

Benazir Bhutto’s party and Sharif’s were bitter rivals in the 1990s, a turbulent decade when both leaders served twice as prime minister without completing a term before Musharraf seized power to the relief of many of Pakistan’s 160 million people.

Information Minister Sherry Rehman said Sharif’s calls for street demonstrations were “against the spirit of democracy” and also appealed for negotiations to sort out the differences. “We cannot have blood and mayhem on the streets,” she said.

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