ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan government considered cutting a compromise deal with the opposition yesterday to head off the political crisis, but stepped up a nationwide crackdown on demonstrators converging on the capital for a major rally.
The opposition warned that distrust between the two camps meant any agreement would be hard to broker, a blow to hopes for a quick resolution of a standoff that risks distracting the government as it faces rising Al-Qaeda and Taleban violence. The US has been pressing all sides in the dispute to resolve their differences. Top British and US diplomats have personally intervened to urge leaders to avoid violence and solve their problems.
The crisis stems from President Asif Ali Zardari’s refusal to accept demands from activist lawyers that he reinstate a group of judges fired by President Pervez Musharraf. It deepened last month when the Supreme Court banned opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz from elected office.
Hours after the court’s verdict, Zardari dismissed the Punjab provincial administration led by Sharif’s brother and handed the reins to a federally appointed governor, Salman Taseer. Sharif urged Pakistanis to join the lawyers’ planned march, putting the country’s two largest political parties on a collision course.
Reports of new efforts to end the dispute followed talks between Zardari and the country’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
Kayani yesterday met Zardari amid reports that the president had been given 24 hours to act to overturn the controversial measures of Musharraf.
A spokesperson for the presidency said regional issues, the political situation prevailing in the country and professional issues came under discussion during the meeting between Zardari and Kayani.
The 24-hour deadline was set under a new deal “backed by Washington, London and the army establishment”, the website of A Pakistan News said.
On Thursday, Richard Holbrooke, US President Barack Obama’s envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, spoke by phone to Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, while US Ambassador Anne Patterson met with Sharif in an attempt to broker a deal. Patterson also huddled with Gilani late yesterday, his spokesman said.
A senior aide to Zardari said he may allow the opposition to regain the leadership in Punjab, the country’s most populous and powerful province, to help ease the turmoil.
That would involve lifting the governor’s rule and letting Sharif’s party elect a new chief minister, he said.
A Sharif spokesman declined to discuss any deal, but noted that Zardari had backtracked on promises before.
“Zardari has zero credibility — zero, a very, very big zero,” Sadiqul Farooq said. Any deal would require “dependable guarantors,” he added.
Zardari, the website reported, was yesterday “asked to go by the army and Prime Minister Gilani if he does not accept a new deal prepared by them in consultation with foreign powers.”
President Obama has shifted Washington’s focus in the “war on terror” to South Asia and the prospect of mass public unrest in Pakistan will only further destabilize the key US ally battling Taleban and Al-Qaeda militants. A senior presidential aide told AFP that Zardari and Gilani were going to discuss ways to reach a compromise with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N).
“The president and prime minister have discussed various options and they are going to discuss it with PML (N),” said the aide on condition of anonymity.
The proposals include setting up a constitutional court, as well as the Supreme Court, and ending governor’s rule in Punjab, Sharif’s heartland and where a court disqualified his brother as chief minister last month.
“The president has been willing to have dialogue from the day one. Politics is all about dialogue,” the presidential aide said. It remains to be seen whether Sharif will accept the concessions or under what conditions the government will allow the march on Islamabad to take place, but the main opposition leader left the door to reconciliation open.
“There is no need for back channel diplomacy or private and secret dialogue. I have not slammed my doors on dialogue,” Sharif said in an interview with Pakistan’s private channel Geo.
“I have no personal enmity with Zardari. If he shuns vested interest and sincerely fulfils his promises to reinstate judges and restore an independent judiciary, I am ready to cooperate with him,” Sharif said.
The government, meanwhile, yesterday extended a ban on public gatherings to North West Frontier Province, which borders war-torn Afghanistan, following similar orders in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh.
Intelligence officials said more than 200 people, including prominent lawyers and local opposition party leaders, had been forcibly rounded up or placed under house arrest in North West Frontier Province.
Police also stopped one of Pakistan’s most iconic lawyers, Ali Ahmed Kurd, the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, from entering Sindh en route to join marchers hoping to head for Islamabad.
In another blow to the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, a federal minister and leader of the house in the Senate tendered his resignation. Raza Rabbani, a member of the PPP’s Central Executive Committee, was a close associate of slain PPP leader Benazir Bhutto.