Pakistani opposition to step up protest after arrests of leaders
Pakistan faces increased political unrest, amid opposition calls for nationwide protests beginning today. The opposition is reacting to the government's arrest last week of hundreds of opposition leaders, including Benazir Bhutto, leader of the opposition Pakistan People's Party.
The arrests were apparently made to keep the opposition from defying the government's ban on political rallies to mark Pakistan's Independence Day, Aug. 14. The government action indicated a sharp reversal of Pakistan's moves toward establishing a more democratic political system since martial law was lifted in December.
``This is probably the beginning of confrontation, and there is no easy way for graceful retreat on either side,'' according to a Western diplomat.
Yesterday was the fifth day of widespread violence in Pakistan. Four opposition activitists were shot to death in the northeastern city of Lahore Thursday. And Pakistani police shot and killed two demonstrators here yesterday, according to opposition party workers.
This week is expected to be a critical test both for the opposition and the government. Analysts say the turnout at the latest rallies, which have been called by the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), will indicate the strength of the opposition's campaign to force the government to schedule an election by Sept. 20. The MRD is an alliance of 11 opposition parties of which Miss Bhutto's PPP is the largest.
Some analysts in Pakistan say the crackdown has helped galvanize opposition forces, which had been unprepared for last week's arrests. Bhutto was arrested Thursday at her home in Karachi and was brought to a juvenile jail outside the city, where she is to be held for 30 days. Many other opposition leaders remain in jail.
Months after her return from exile in Europe, Bhutto had been unable to step up her campaign to oust President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, which was interrupted in May by the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
In contrast to the massive turnout during her homecoming in March, PPP rallies last month were small, and her effort to force mid-term elections later this year has so far failed. Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo has said there will be no elections until the end of the National Assembly's term in 1990. The Assembly is the Pakistani parliament's lower house.
Before her arrest, Bhutto had been careful not to raise the pitch of her political activity and thereby spark the reimposition of martial law. MRD leaders have maintained that the movement's activity would be peaceful and nonviolent.
But the opposition movement will have to change its strategy to force a showdown, analysts say. MRD leaders are believed to be considering civil disobedience campaigns if the government does not give in to their Sept. 20 deadline, although an MRD spokesman has said the opposition would like to wait and see what happens this week.
The arrest of Bhutto has fueled some unrest in certain parts of Sind Province, the Bhutto family's home state. Her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was ousted by President Zia in a 1977 coup. Mr. Bhutto was hanged in 1979 after being convicted on charges of conspiring to murder an opponent.
How the government will react to MRD's rallies remains to be seen. Most analysts believe Prime Minister Junejo will be forced to continue his hard line against dissenters partly because of his own weakness. They believe Junejo himself would not have cracked down on Miss Bhutto if he had been acting independently.
``Junejo himself is a soft man. He would not have resorted to such drastic measures. But he is not a free agent,'' says a Karachi newspaper editor.
Other analysts say Junejo overreacted by arresting the leaders.
``He was probably concerned that his party rally might not have as good a turnout as the MRD's. That's why he banned the political rallies in the first place,'' says Razia Bhatti, editor of a leading Pakistani monthly, the Herald.
Junejo's party, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League planned to hold its biggest Independence Day political meeting in the Punjab capital of Lahore, the site of the MRD rallies.
Junejo has been widely criticized here for reversing his stand on political activity in the country. The government had allowed peaceful demonstrations it lifted martial law.