ISLAMABAD - A volatile situation existed in Pakistan where authorities Friday continued their crackdown on agitating lawyers staging a ‘long march’ amidst reports that President Asif Ali Zardari had been set an internationally-backed, 24-hour deadline by the army to end the stir.
Pakistan Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was reported to have got into the act Friday, meeting Zardari for the first time since the president returned home Wednesday from a regional meeting in Tehran.
A spokesperson for the presidency only said regional issues, the political situation prevailing in the country and professional issues were discussed during the meeting.
The 24-hour deadline was set under a new deal ‘backed by Washington, London and the army establishment’, A Pakistan News, an independent website run by media professionals, said. There was no official confirmation of the report.
As part of the deal, the website quoted sources as saying, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has been asked to ‘immediately convince’ Zardari to ‘demonstrate the flexibility required’ to break the deadlock before the thousands-strong lawyers’ march reaches Islamabad.
On their part, the lawyers reaffirmed their resolve to continue their stir.
‘I am not aware of any invitation (for talks on ending the stir),’ Aitzaz Ahsan, a former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, was quoted as saying.
Thousands of lawyers Thursday simultaneously began their ‘long march’ from Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab and will converge here March 16 for a sit-in before parliament to demand the reinstatement of the Supreme Court and high court judges then president Pervez Musharraf had sacked after imposing an emergency in November 2007.
The law-enforcement authorities have taken more than 750 people into custody in a bid to end the stir. A similar stir a year ago ended in Musharraf’s exit.
According to the news website, Zardari was also ‘asked to go’ by the army and Gilani ‘if he does not accept a new deal hatched by them in consultation with foreign powers’.
‘The new political deal, backed by Washington, London and the army establishment, has quietly been conveyed to Gilani to bring down the political temperature in Pakistan,’ it quoted unnamed sources as saying.
‘The ball is now firmly in the court of Zardari, who has to take a decision swiftly on endorsing the agreement brokered by powerful international actors.’
Kayani, the report said, had met Gilani in Islamabad Wednesday and during the 90 minute meeting, asked him to set the deal in motion.
According to the same report, if Zardari does not accept the new deal, the president’s office ‘will be completely marginalised, Zardari will be removed’, Gilani will ‘take over’ after power ‘will be restored’ to the prime minister’s office.
Musharraf had transferred these powers to the presidency through the controversial 17th constitution amendment in December 2003. They relate to the appointment of military commanders and the right to dismiss the federal and provincial governments.
As part of the deal, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif will join the federal cabinet and deposed Supreme Court chief justice Iftikar Mohammad Chaudhary will be reappointed, the report added.
It, however, was silent on Zardari’s future if he is removed from office.
In other developments Friday, Sharif said he was ready for ‘face-to-face’ talks with Zardari to resolve the impasse.
‘There is no need for back channels. We can and should talk face-to-face,’ Sharif told Geo TV in an interview.
Sharif, whose PML-N has jumped onto the march bandwagon, is also upset over a Supreme Court judgement barring him and his brother from contesting elections.
The verdict led to the fall of Shahbaz Sharif’s government in Punjab and Governor’s Rule being imposed in the province.
Nawaz Sharif has accused Zardari of engineering the court judgement.
As speculation mounted over the political crisis in the country, a top US military official said Kayani was not in favour of a military coup.
In an interview to a US TV channel, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Kayani was a stanch supporter of democracy and did not want military coup in the country.