LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistani opposition leader Nawaz Sharif Wednesday accused the Pakistani government of launching an all-out attack on its political opponents instead of confronting the country's Islamic extremists and charged that top officials are plotting to assassinate him.
As Sharif was being driven to a political rally in an armor-plated Mercedes, the government of President Asif Ali Zardari arrested hundreds of political party workers, lawyers and human rights campaigners in an apparent move to head off a mass opposition rally.
A coalition of political parties led by Sharif's party and pro-judiciary groups had planned a march on Islamabad starting Thursday, calling for the government to appoint independent judges and reinstate the country's fired chief justice. Setting out from all corners of Pakistan, the "Long March" protesters had hoped to arrive in the capital March 16.
Zardari's government Wednesday banned public gatherings of more than four people in Punjab and Sindh, two of Pakistan's four provinces, and put paramilitary troops on standby. Authorities arrested around 300 political activists in the Punjab under a colonial-era law that allows for six months' imprisonment, Rao Iftikhar, a senior official in the provincial administration, told reporters.
Many activists went into hiding but promised that the march will go ahead, which could lead to violent clashes between demonstrators and the authorities.
Zardari has created an "elected dictatorship" that will aid the spread of violent extremism, Sharif said in a 90-minute interview with McClatchy.
"Sometimes we (Pakistanis) are caught up in military dictatorships," Sharif said. "Now we are caught up in a democratic dictatorship. In the garb of democracy, we are, frankly, under dictatorial rule."
"Only a democratic Pakistan can get rid of extremism," he added. " . . . Rather than fighting extremism, we (political leaders) are fighting each other."
Sharif said that he'd recently received "very alarming" information from his own sources, whom he called credible, "about certain forces who are active against me."
"Threats to my life come from high-ranking government officials, certain topmost people in the government, my sources say," he said.
Sharif declined to give further details, but other officials in his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the party has yet to decide how to respond.
Zardari's spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, dismissed Sharif's allegations of a plot to kill him as "political mileage."
"This is outlandish," said Babar. "The government is providing him (Sharif) protection so that the militants don't take advantage of the situation."
Zardari, who served jail time for alleged corruption, became Pakistan's top politician after the assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in late 2007. His drive for power pitted him first against former President Pervez Musharraf, who came to the top office in a military coup that ousted Sharif. Sharif served Zardari as prime minister but quit the government, and the two are now bitter enemies.
The conflict between Sharif and Zardari escalated last month when Zardari dismissed the Punjab provincial government, which was run by Sharif's party. Zardari based his action on a ruling by Pakistan's high court, which Musharraf had installed.
Sharif had demanded the reinstatement of the former chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, but Zardari apparently feared that Chaudhry might remove him because of the corruption charges. Zardari's aides say that Chaudhry is too politicized and that Sharif is taking advantage of the issue.
Sharif, whose party dominates the powerful Punjab province, stormed out of the coalition over the issue of the judges. But it was Zardari's move against the Punjab administration that pushed Sharif from critic to archenemy. Zardari now runs the province under emergency rule.
"Our mandate (in Punjab) has been trampled. He (Zardari) doesn't show respect to other parties' mandate. It is the worst form of dictatorship," said Sharif. "He doesn't allow the judiciary to become independent because of his own vested interest. This is what dictatorship is all about."
The federal information minister, Sherry Rehman, accused Sharif of provoking the crackdown by calling for civil disobedience and refusing to negotiate with Islamabad.
"Had the PML-N (Sharif's party) and the right-wing rump of the former lawyers' movement decided to hold a peaceful rally, the government would have facilitated it, as it has done in the past," Rehman said. "But Pakistan's constitutional and democratically elected government cannot allow the rule of law to be replaced by the law of the jungle."
Western governments led by Britain and the United States have tried to broker a truce between Zardari and Sharif. There also are fears that, if serious civil unrest follows, the army could step in again.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY