ISLAMABAD: In the second climb-down in a month, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari yesterday said he would order the lifting of governor’s rule in Punjab, the populous eastern province considered the political bastion of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz.
The provincial government of Shahbaz Sharif was dismissed in late February and governor’s rule imposed after the Supreme Court disqualified the Sharif brothers from contesting elections over previous conviction.
The one-year-old civilian government, led by Zardari’s Pakistan’s Peoples’ Party (PPP), was plunged into crisis this month when Sharif drove through Punjab at the head of mass protests that raised fears of a violent climax in Islamabad. The government placed barricades round the capital and put the army on alert as Sharif set off from the eastern city of Lahore.
Fearful of instability in a nuclear-armed nation already under threat from Al-Qaeda and Taleban militants, Western governments and the Pakistan Army persuaded Zardari to defuse the crisis by submitting to Sharif’s demand for the reinstatement of a top judge. On March 16, the government restored Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry as Supreme Court chief justice. Chaudhry was sacked by former President Pervez Musharraf.
“I wish to announce that we shall recommend the lifting of the governor’s rule in Punjab,” Zardari said in a keynote address to Parliament yesterday. He said the PPP will sit in the opposition in the Punjab Legislative Assembly.
“Pakistan has many challenges. What it does not need is a challenge from within its democracy,” Zardari said. “Let’s put an end to challenging each other. We have enough challenges from around the world and within us (from) our enemies. Let us be friends once again and forever.”
In a step toward dispelling mistrust between the country’s two major political parties, the government this month asked the Supreme Court to suspend the Sharifs’ disqualification while an appeal is heard. The court is due to hear the government’s plea on the Sharifs’ behalf tomorrow.
Zardari said he hoped the restoration of the provincial government would lead to reconciliation between the two and that he and Sharif could “still meet as friends.” Opinion polls show Sharif, the prime minister ousted by Musharraf in a coup in 1999, has become Pakistan’s most popular politician since returning from exile in late 2007.
Sharif’s popularity was linked to the uncompromising stand he took over Chaudhry, the judge Musharraf dismissed when he declared emergency rule to extend his presidency.
The pro-West Zardari had become widely unpopular, again in part because of his past reluctance to reinstate Chaudhry who had stood up to Musharraf. Analysts say the president had feared the judge might nullify an amnesty Musharraf had given Benazir Bhutto and Zardari to return to Pakistan without fear of prosecution in corruption cases.
In his Parliament speech yesterday, Zardari also said that Pakistan will not compromise its sovereignty. “We have opposed drone attacks and we will oppose them,” the president said, referring to frequent missile attacks on suspected terrorists in the country’s northwest bordering Afghanistan.
– With input from agencies