A political storm threatened to undermine the presidency of Asif Ali Zardari as hundreds of lawyers and political activists, determined to restore ousted Chief Justice Ifthekar Chaudhry, were arrested on the first day of their cross-country “Long March” to Islamabad.
Concerned by events across the border, India said a strong and stable Pakistan was essential to tackle terrorist elements both inside and outside the country.
<b1>Over 350 political activists were arrested across Pakistan even as interior ministry chief Rehman Malik said the march — that set out from the cities of Karachi and Quetta — would be allowed to go ahead. “We’ll not stop them, but if someone tries to take the law in his hand, I must say in the house that he won’t be allowed,” Malik told the National Assembly.
“This is a war for power and rule and unless we get out of this sphere, such things will keep on happening,” Malik said.
The arrests came as opposition leader Nawaz Sharif said he would not bow to pressure and hinted that there was a threat to his life because he had decided to go ahead with the march. The government, however, dismissed such threats.
President Zardari chaired a high-level meeting in Islamabad in which Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was also present in a bid to defuse the situation and at the same time review security arrangements ahead of the procession hitting Islamabad on March 15.
In Karachi, police officials boasted that the Long March ‘had ended before it started.” Karachi police chief Waseem Ahmad told journalists at the Toll Plaza, where the arrests took place, that the police was following orders.
In Lahore, around 2,000 lawyers, political workers and activists joined the protests. “Today we have defied Section 144. It shows public morale is very high and they will reach Islamabad on March 16,” leading lawyer Aitazaz Ahsan said.
Analysts believe that the Pakistan Army chief Parvez Kayani might have given a signal to PM Yusuf Raza Gilani to assert himself against Zardari, who has actually been wielding power in Pakistan.
However, it remains unclear whether Gilani will move to end Zardari’s stranglehold on the government and the Pakistan Peoples Party, where supporters of the late Benazir Bhutto are known to be a dissatisfied lot.
The Army is watching from the sidelines and though it appears loath to take direct power again the circumstances of a deepening political crisis and growing terrorist attacks might eventually force its hand.
Protesters plan a sit-in near parliament, although the government, which came to power after elections last year after nine years of military rule, has said they will not be allowed in the city centre.
(With HTC in Delhi and agency inputs)