Pro-Sharif Demonstrations Spread Across Punjab
The New York Times
By Jane Perlez

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Thousands of supporters of the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif protested across Punjab Province on Thursday, a day after the Supreme Court upheld a ruling barring him from holding elected office and removed his brother as the province’s head of government.
In Rawalpindi, demonstrators waved the green flags of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, the party headed by Mr. Sharif, and chanted slogans against President Asif Ali Zardari’s government. While the protesters were mostly peaceful, some built barricades of burning tires and used rocks to smash the windows of stores and banks on a main shopping street, The Associated Press reported.

In Punjab’s provincial capital, Lahore, the police herded 20 lawmakers from the Sharif brothers’ party into police trucks as they gathered for a protest at the Punjab Assembly. The police allowed them to them clamber out as the crowd swelled with supporters, and they held a mock parliamentary session on the steps.

“We are democrats, and what we are seeing today is shameful,” a lawmaker, Rana Iqbal, said, The Associated Press reported.

Separately, Mr. Sharif addressed a rally on Thursday in Shekhupura, near Lahore, and called on the people of Pakistan to reject the court’s decision.

“The decisions of the masses have always been trampled either by judges or dictators,” he told the crowd of several thousand, Reuters reported. “Today the decision of the people has to be accepted.”

The protests Thursday appeared to be largely limited to Punjab Province, Mr. Sharif’s power base. Mr. Sharif, a former prime minister, does not enjoy as much popularity in Pakistan’s other three provinces, and one of the tests in the coming weeks will be whether he can muster significant support outside Punjab.

The political confrontation was likely to serve as a distraction from the escalating insurgency of Al Qaeda and the Taliban that Washington was trying to persuade the government to focus on, political analysts said.

Protests began soon after the court decision, as of supporters of the Pakistan Muslim League-N burned tires and ripped down posters of Mr. Zardari in Lahore and Rawalpindi.
By Wednesday evening, the chamber of the Punjab Assembly was filled with Muslim League legislators chanting slogans and banging the desks.

The Supreme Court disqualified Mr. Sharif, who twice served as prime minister in the 1990s, from holding public office because of a criminal conviction connected to the military coup that ousted him in 1999.

In an attempt to forestall the coup, Mr. Sharif ordered that an aircraft carrying the head of the army, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, into Pakistan not be allowed to land. The coup succeeded, and Mr. Sharif was convicted on hijacking charges and forced into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Musharraf served as president until last year and appointed the Supreme Court that made the ruling Wednesday under an emergency decree declared two years ago. Mr. Sharif has called the court illegal. Mr. Zardari has supported it. Their coalition government came apart over the issue last fall.

Mr. Sharif denounced the court decision as a politically motivated ruling orchestrated by his archrival, Mr. Zardari. “It’s an edict, not a verdict,” Mr. Sharif said. Without offering proof, he also alleged that Mr. Zardari had tried to offer a business deal to his brother if he supported the legitimacy of the Supreme Court.

The ruling also banned Mr. Zardari’s brother, Shahbaz, from holding office, forcing him to step down immediately as chief minister of the Punjab. Hours later, Mr. Zardari ordered the provincial governor, Salman Taseer, a member of the president’s political party, to administer the province for two months until the appointment of a new chief minister.

The appointment of Mr. Taseer, a major ally of the president, to oversee the province appeared aimed at trying to weaken the hold of the Sharif brothers over the bureaucracy and key law enforcement posts.

The ruling by the Supreme Court against the Sharif brothers had been anticipated for weeks. Their assessment that the court decision was political rather than judicial had also been expected. The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party said in a statement that the ruling was “a court decision and has nothing to do with the government.” It urged the Sharif brothers “to control their supporters in the interest of democracy.”

A spokeswoman for the government, Sherry Rehman, said, “It’s unfortunate the ferocity of the reaction and the personalized attack on the president has soured the atmosphere.” She urged the Sharif brothers to join the government in the spirit of “reconciliation” to tackle the nation’s economic problems.

The standoff between Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif was considered so combustible that the “government’s future is uncertain,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a columnist for The Daily Times, an English-language newspaper that is owned by Mr. Taseer. But it would take at least a month to see an outcome, he said.

The Obama administration, which is currently conferring with the Pakistani government on new strategies to fight the insurgency, would be “very concerned and upset” by the political turmoil, Mr. Rizvi said.

The prospect of a popular movement stirred up by Mr. Sharif was worrying because in the past such efforts in Pakistan had “always resulted in a system that isn’t democratic,” Mr. Rizvi said.

Among the factors adding to the political volatility were the relative showings of Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif in recent public opinion surveys.

According to a poll taken in October and released in December by the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based outfit affiliated with the Republican Party, Mr. Sharif’s approval ratings outstripped Mr. Zardari’s by large margins.

When asked who they would prefer to have as president, 59 percent of the respondents said they preferred Mr. Sharif, and 19 percent said they preferred Mr. Zardari.

The poll was taken among 3,500 people between Oct. 15 and Oct. 30 in the four provinces of Pakistan, according to Robert Varsalone, the manager of the survey. The margin of error was 1.66 percentage points, he said.

After the ruling on Wednesday, Mr. Sharif said he would join a protest by the lawyers’ movement on March 12 intended to force the reinstatement of the former chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, whom Mr. Musharraf removed.

Mr. Sharif has argued that Mr. Zardari was intent on keeping his replacement, Abdul Hameed Dogar, because Mr. Dogar would leave in place an amnesty on corruption charges that benefited Mr. Zardari. Mr. Zardari rejects the argument and has refused to reappoint Mr. Chaudhry.

Sharon Otterman contributed reporting from New York.

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