Crisis threatens Musharraf’s power
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Police battled protesters and stormed a television news channel Friday as the ouster of the top judge pushed Pakistan toward a political crisis that could threaten President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s hold on power.The controversy has galvanized opposition to Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S. war on terror, as he prepares to seek another presidential term this year.An Islamist opposition leader and a former president were among dozens detained as demonstrators accused the military of riding roughshod over Pakistan’s slowly re-emerging democratic institutions.Musharraf suspended Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry a week ago over unspecified allegations he had abused his authority. The government insists the move was nonpolitical and that Chaudhry could still be reinstated.But analysts and political opponents suspect Musharraf of sacrificing the independence of the judiciary to remove a strong-willed judge ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.Even the U.S. government, which lauds Musharraf for his role in the fight against al-Qaida, has expressed concern over one of the biggest political crises the general has faced since he took power in a bloodless coup in 1999.”The general and his associates have lost touch with reality,” said Rusul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences. They suffer from the “misunderstanding that since they control the coercive apparatus of the state, they can control any situation.”A wave of overnight arrests and a daytime security operation failed to prevent unrest in the capital Friday, when Chaudhry appeared for a second hearing in his case.Hundreds of police and paramilitary troops struggled to contain protesters – including lawyers and backers of hard-line Islamic opposition parties – who streamed toward the Supreme Court, where judges were examining the allegations against Chaudhry.Police fired tear gas and charged a group of protesters with wooden batons, and the demonstrators responded by throwing rocks. Footage on Geo television channel showed police riding armored cars and firing what appeared to be rubber bullets.Security forces raided the Islamabad office of Geo, which broadcast footage of uniformed police and plainclothes officers smashing through its glass-fronted entrance. One of the station’s most popular news shows was pulled off the air Thursday – apparently for its coverage of the crisis.Musharraf took the unusual step of apologizing personally for the raid.”The first thing is that it was a very sad incident. It should have not happened, and I condemn it,” the president said in a live telephone interview with Geo. He said the “culprits responsible for it must be identified and action against them must be taken today.”Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the chief of a hard-line Islamist coalition, Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, and at least seven other lawmakers affiliated with the group were arrested in Islamabad. Former President Rafiq Tarar was among those led away from a rally in the eastern city of Lahore.Police said Tarar, a former Supreme Court judge who was president from 1988-2001, was being taken back to his home and would be released.Officials said more than 200 opposition figures were detained Thursday night in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore in an attempt to prevent unlawful demonstrations.The government insists its move against Chaudhry is in line with the constitution.But many suspect Musharraf of trying to silence a judge who has shown too much independence by demanding the government provide information about people believed held in secret by intelligence services on suspicion of terrorist links.The outcry has been fueled by press photographs of police bundling Chaudhry into a car and the judge’s complaints that he has been placed under virtual house arrest.With parliamentary elections due within a year, the move against the chief justice is particularly sensitive. Musharraf is expected to seek re-election from the outgoing assembly, and has given no indication he is willing to yield to opposition demands he give up his post as army chief. His stance is likely to draw complaints to the Supreme Court.The U.S. government said it was watching the situation closely.”It is a matter of deep concern, and we believe that the resolution of this matter should take place in a way that is completely transparent and strictly in accordance with Pakistan’s laws,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.Rais, the political science professor, said it was hard to predict what would happen. He said the possibilities ranged from Musharraf declaring a state of emergency to the judicial panel restoring Chaudhry to office; either could erode Musharraf’s standing with voters and fellow generals.The crisis is also likely to tarnish the ruling party and increase the influence of the two main secular opposition parties.Khalid Jawed Khan, a commentator for Dawn newspaper, said the military has failed to understand how the rise of electronic media – exemplified by Geo’s blanket coverage of Friday’s violence – “has completely transformed the rules of the game.””While it wants to demonstrate its power, it is exposed and looks weakened as never before. The general has never been so vulnerable,” Khan wrote.