ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Political turmoil deepened Wednesday and Pakistanis braced for violence as opponents of President Asif Ali Zardari prepared to lead a massive protest march toward the capital this week, while police arrested hundreds of opposition activists and the government banned public assemblies in major cities.
Many Pakistanis said they feared the conflict could bring the year-old civilian government to the brink of collapse, and some said it could revive the specter of army intervention in the nuclear-armed nation of 160 million, which recently emerged from military rule and faces a growing threat from violent Islamic extremists.
The protest march, long planned by Pakistani lawyers as a peaceful action to demand the reinstatement of the deposed Supreme Court chief justice, has been overtaken by a personal and partisan brawl between Zardari, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, and top leaders of the rival Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
All this week, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has been exhorting supporters at large rallies across the country to take to the streets and carry out a “revolution” against Zardari, whom he has accused of being more dictatorial than Pakistan’s previous military ruler, retired army Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
“We can change history in seven days,” said Sharif, who heads the major Muslim League faction, to a cheering crowd in Abbotabad, a city in northwestern Pakistan. “The future of Pakistan is bleak, and the constitution is being violated. The whole country is in the process of disintegration.”
In response, officials have launched a nationwide crackdown aimed at preventing marchers from reaching the capital. Television footage Wednesday showed activists being dragged into police vans, and dozens of senior figures in the Muslim League and legal community were placed under house arrest. Others fled their homes and hid from the authorities.
Government officials said they had no choice but to stop the march, blaming Sharif for inciting the public to violent rebellion and warning that terrorists might infiltrate the demonstrations. They said they were still open to reconciliation.