LAHORE - A defiant former Pakistan Prime Minister and chief of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Nawaz Sharif, on Sunday exhorted all Pakistanis to come out onto the streets and make the ‘Long March’ of politicians and lawyers a grand success.
Addressing PML-N leaders and supporters outside his Multan Road residence here, where he is purportedly under house arrest, a very vocal and at times hoarse Nawaz Sharif appealed to all right-thinking Pakistanis to shed their inhibitions and fears in their quest to deliver a message of change in the leadership of the country.
He emphatically said that the present regime had done its time, and proved beyond a shadow of doubt that it was incapable of administering the affairs of the country and its people in a judicious and acceptable manner.
He said that it was the constitutional right of all Pakistanis to demand change when it was merited, and warned the government of President Zardari not to take steps to quash the hopes of a fledgling democracy, else it would face a telling reply, the likes of which had not been seen in the 60 or more years of Pakistan’s existence as an independent nation.
His verbal salvo came as the government in Pakistan’s Punjab Province took steps to prevent the ‘Long March’ from proceeding to Islamabad.
The provincial administration continued to detain lawyers and leaders and workers of opposition political parties besides blockading highways in the province.
Inter-city transport came to a halt as the administration stopped buses from operating till further orders, causing inconvenience to thousands of people.
Truck drivers also suspended their operation, affecting business and trade.
The highway police were instructed to search private cars and vehicles and detain people ‘thought to be’ leaving for Islamabad.
Apart from highways, the police also blocked small arteries linking small cities and villages by placing containers and tractor trolleys that they had commandeered.
The Dawn quoted Pakistan Motor Transport Federation vice-president Naseer Butt as saying that about 5,000 buses, coaches and wagons, operating from Badami Bagh General Bus Stand and Bakkar Mandi Bund Road Bus Stand, were not allowed to move on the police directives.
In Lahore, lawyers and opposition leaders were planning to assemble on Sunday morning at GPO Chowk on the Mall to start their long march.
The main PML-N procession is likely to be led by former Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif.
PML-N office-bearers said that a majority of their leaders and activists had already gone into hiding to avoid arrests and would surface for Monday’s march into the Pakistan capital.
Hopes for a compromise between the opposition and the federal government receded on Saturday with President Asif Ali Zardari refusing to cave in completely to the pressure from the former.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has been promoting a compromise package involving concessions to the PML-N.
“From what I know, President Zardari has made it clear: ‘I am not going to negotiate under pressure. Mr Sharif has to abandon the long march’,” said a senior government official, who declined to be identified.
The News said Zardari had rejected a compromise package backed by the United States and Britain, whose top diplomats have consulted both sides in recent days.
Zardari would only consider the reconciliation formula after Monday, when the ‘Long March’ is due to climax with a sit-in outside parliament in Islamabad, the newspaper said.
Pakistan’s efforts to eliminate Taliban and al Qaeda enclaves on the Afghan border are vital to U.S. plans to stabilise Afghanistan and defeat al Qaeda. The last thing the United States wants to see is Pakistan consumed by turmoil.
If the crisis gets out of hand, the army, which has ruled for more than half the country’s 61 years of history, could feel compelled to intervene in some way, though most analysts say a military takeover is highly unlikely.
Despite the crack down, the protesters have vowed to press on with rallies in Lahore on Sunday and Islamabad the next day.
Their main demand is the reinstatement of former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was dismissed in 2007 by the then president and army chief Pervez Musharraf.
Zardari has refused to reinstate the judge, seeing him as a threat to his own position.
Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, an avowed constitutionalist, met both Zardari and Gilani on Friday.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the American PBS network, he doubted Kayani would intervene.
“I don’t think that possibility is out there as a high probability right now, but certainly it’s a concern,” Admiral Mullen said.