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Conflict Between Pakistan's Political Rivals Prompts Protests, Turmoil


The rivalry between Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari and his former coalition partner Nawaz Sharif is creating more turmoil in a country facing economic and political troubles.

After the Supreme court last week banned Sharif from holding elective office, protests broke out the major cities. The dispute comes as lawyers and opposition leaders plan nationwide marches to press Mr. Zardari to reinstate the country's former chief justice.

Anger is still running high in Pakistan over a Supreme Court decision that bars former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif from elected office.

Sharif supporters in major cities took to the streets for three days last week after the ruling, police and protestors clashing here in Islamabad.

The two-time prime minister was barred because of a criminal conviction connected to the military coup that ousted him in 1999. His brother's guilty verdict in an election case also was upheld.

Sharif claims his rival President Asif Ali Zardari influenced the court decision. "I think there is turmoil in this country," he said. "Which of course is not good for democracy for any democratic country."

Mr. Zardari, widower of slain leader Benazir Bhutto, denied the allegation, but apparently added to the crisis by imposing direct federal rule on Sharif's power base, Punjab province.

Teresita Schaffer at the Center for Strategic and International Studies says it hurts the image of Mr. Zardari. "It poses a serious threat certainly to the democratic credentials of the present government but more generally to the effort to give democracy deeper roots in the actual governing of Pakistan," she said.

Sharif was a partner in Mr. Zardari's coalition government. But he withdrew late last year over the government's refusal to reinstate country's top judge, Iftikhar Chaudhry who was dismissed by former president Pervez Musharraf in 2007. Sharif alleges Mr. Zardari fears that if brought back, Chaudhry could revive old corruption charges against him.

Experts fear the continued political instability, on top of Pakistan's economic woes and the fight against terrorism, could prompt the army to intervene.

Schaffer says although it seems that the Army Chief, Ashfaq Kayani, prefers to have a civilian government out in front, the signals are mixed.

"The army still expects to have the upper hand in anything touching the national security and it has not been a smooth process. They have been quite public in the way they have rejected some of the civilian government's decisions," Schaffer said.

The parties of Sharif and Benazir Bhutto have dominated Pakistani politics for more than two decades.

Marvin Weinbaum at the Middle East Institute says, "The country seems virtually incapable of bringing forth new blood. As we look at the current cast of leaders and potential leaders, we seem to see the same cast repeated over and over again," he said.

Even as more people move into the urban areas from Pakistan's villages, the political parties main support comes from rural areas.

Shuja Nawaz at the Atlantic Council says the country needs urban-based political parties. "And if it produces a true trans-national leadership, which is not based on any single provincial political base, then Pakistan may have the basis for a stable polity emerging," Nawaz said.

Experts say the political crisis in Pakistan might make the already sagging economy even worse and could also distract the Zardari government from its fight against terrorism.

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