|Pakistan’s police forces say they will not allow protesters to reach parliament in Islamabad [EPA]|
Massive shipping containers are being hoisted into place to prevent a popular procession that is travelling from all over Pakistan to Islamabad, the capital, in support of Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the sacked chief justice.
These corrugated steel structures, often used in the high seas, are now part of a number of measures in the government’s land defences that have only made Islamabad and other parts of the country feel much more like a war zone than a fledgling democracy.
Over a cup of hot, sweet tea Fawad, a shopkeeper in one of Islamabad’s more upmarket suburbs, shakes his head as police vans drive by.
“Look at this … these people look like an invading army and for what? Because people are angry and want to show their anger with the government?”
As Fawad takes another sip, the Pakistan police deploy the “Rangers Force”. However their khaki uniforms make them look much more like an army – an army on the streets.
Under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, the government has effectively banned people from gathering, marching and displaying political colours across Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province.
The Pakistani interior ministry says it has been forced to take such measures because of fears of suicide bombers attacking the protesters.
In the last few days mass arrests have also been made; political activists, party workers, and lawyers have been were picked up from their houses in the middle of the night.
High profile politicians such as former Pakistani cricketer Imran khan have not escaped the crackdown. Khan went into hiding after the police raided his offices and he remains on the run.
Pakistan’s political observers say the raids, arrests and security measures have a familiar feel to them and are the same type of tactics used by the British in India to quell the independence movement in the 1930s and 40s.
These were of similar nature to the laws and decrees which put now-iconic figures like Gandhi behind bars. Pakistan’s penal code is an adaptation of the one the British left behind after independence and partition.
Many Pakistanis have wondered why the government has now resorted to such measures when previous marches had been conducted peacefully.
Political power struggle
The short answer can be found in the political power struggles between Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president and co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), the largest opposition party.
Chaudhry is caught in the middle.
The troubles that would pit these men into this political tug-of-war can be traced back to March 2007, when Pervez Musharraf, the then president and former army chief, ruled the country.
Sharif was in exile in Saudi Arabia and Zardari’s wife, Benazir Bhutto, was in self-imposed exile in London and Dubai.
The Americans, always the power brokers in Pakistan firmly backed the military government and had no interest in trying foster democracy; the so-called war on terror and Pakistan’s crucial role in it was their top priority.
But then Musharraf, in what is now seen as a tactical blunder, sacked Chaudhry, on what he said were grounds of corruption.
Lawyers felt that the chief justice was sacked because he was due to hear politically-sensitive cases involving Musharraf’s legality as ruler among other cases in which Pakistani nationals had been arrested in the so-called war on terror.
|Pakistani lawyers say Iftikhar Chaudhry must be reinstated by the government [EPA]|
Anger at Chaudhry’s dismissal gradually grew and the country erupted in protest with ordinary people – and later political parties – joining the lawyers.
In May 2007, Chaudhry drove from Islamabad to Lahore. The four-hour journey took him 25 hours to complete as he was mobbed by the public.
Over the course of the next 12 months the lawyers fought pitched battles with police and challenged the government which tried in vain to quell their protests.
In November 2007, Musharraf called for elections. Sensing their time had come, Sharif and Bhutto returned to Pakistan. Bhutto survived one attempt on her life only to succumb to another a month later.
Despite her death, Bhutto’s party elected her husband Zardari as co-chair and pushed forward with their election campaign.
In February 2008, the PPP and PML-N formed a coalition. However, while Sharif insisted that the sacked chief justice be reinstated, Zardari spoke only of an independent judiciary.
Still, hopes were high that an agreement on Chaudhry’s status would be reached by the Zardari-led government.
Fearing the threat of impeachment, Musharraf resigned in August 2008.
With Musharraf gone many felt victory had come and the re-instating of the chief justice became a sideline issue. Many Pakistanis felt that the government and Sharif needed time find a way to address Chaudhry’s situation.
However, later that month, Sharif withdrew the PML-N from the government citing the slow pace of negotiations to reinstate Chaudhry.
In the months afterwards the lawyers movement began to lose pace and in February 2009, Pakistan’s supreme court upheld a ruling banning Sharif from political office.
Sharif was reportedly furious and decided to support the lawyers movement and join their calls for the long march on Islamabad.
Both Zardari and Sharif have lot to fight for. Analysts say the core of the issue is not the chief justice per se but the pursuit of power: Zardari is afraid that once reinstated the chief justice could revisit corruption cases against him, leaving him open to impeachment proceedings.
Sharif is hopeful that the reinstated chief justice will overturn the ruling banning him from political office, thereby paving the way for him to return as Pakistan’s prime minister.
Syed Tariq Pirzada, a political analyst, told Al Jazeera: “The government was not expecting the reality of the momentum Sharif has gained from his backing of the lawyers. He has surprised everybody with the support he has gotten.”
The government needed to react. They put into place security measures and ordered mass arrests. Pirzada says the governments response has only strengthened Sharif’s case.
“The government is now scared so they have put together, in my opinion, a disproportionate response and that has only added fuel to Sharif’s fire,” he said.
It would seem that the fire is now raging.
Lawyers, political activists and party workers have begun to gather, and the security forces have begun their task of preventing people from marching on parliament.
Though the government has vowed to prevent them from doing so, the lawyers insist they will reach parliament in a few days.
However, regardless which side emerges as the victors, the political war is likely to be far from over.