Pakistan's opposition leader Nawaz Sharif said on Tuesday his party would back a campaign by lawyers to press the government to restore judges sacked by former President Pervez Musharraf in 2007.
Lawyers have called for a protest and sit-in outside parliament beginning on March 9, raising the prospect of a confrontation with a government already grappling with a sagging economy, militant violence and tension with India.
"Our parliamentary party has decided on Tuesday that we will fully support the lawyers," former Prime Minister Sharif told a news conference after a party meeting in Islamabad. "It's a national cause and we could not give it up at any cost."
Lawyers spearheaded opposition to former army chief and president Musharraf after he tried to sack the chief justice in March 2007.
After declaring a state of emergency in November that year, Musharraf purged Chaudhry and other judges who Musharraf saw as a threat to his plans to hold power.
Musharraf eventually stepped down as president under threat of impeachment in August last year.
The refusal of the new government, led by the party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, to reinstate former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry led to Sharif pulling his party out of a coalition government last year.
Analysts say Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari, who replaced Musharraf as president in September, fears the independent-minded Chaudhry might reopen legal challenges to an amnesty from graft charges.
Musharraf granted the amnesty to Bhutto, Zardari and other senior officials in their party last year as part of a proposed power-sharing deal.
Analysts say Chaudhry also angered the security services by initiating legal cases on behalf of people who disappeared after being detained in the campaign against militancy.
FEAR OF CONFRONTATION
Sharif said the lawyers campaign was just and he appealed to the public to come out onto the streets in March to support it.
Sharif's withdrawal of his party from the coalition formed after elections in February last year raised fears of confrontation between the country's two biggest parties.
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the country's second-largest party, rules the biggest and politically most important province of Punjab, while Zardari's Pakistan People's Party controls the federal government.
Despite some tension, Sharif has in general supported the government but his backing of the lawyers' protest will again raise fears of a return to the fractious politics of the 1990s when both parties twice headed governments.
That period of quarrelsome rule was ended by a military coup mounted by then army chief Musharraf in 1999.
Sharif said he didn't want confrontation with the government.
He also said his party was demanding the repeal of a constitutional amendment that gave the president the power to dissolve the National Assembly and bring down a government.
Musharraf introduced the amendment to bolster the power of the president compared with the prime minister.
Zardari's party voices support for stripping the president of his powers, though analysts say they doubt Zardari would want to do that and become a figurehead president.