ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani government was poised late Sunday night to give in to an opposition campaign to reinstate the nation's former chief justice, just before a massive protest march was to reach the capital of Islamabad.
Asif Ali Zardari's administration was set to announce that former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry would be brought back to office, two years after former military ruler Pervez Musharraf had first moved to fire him. A televised address by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was anticipated early Monday in Pakistan.
Pakistan's lawyers have campaigned loudly to restore Chaudhry, a cause that was backed by a coalition of opposition parties. Zardari's government was shaken in the last few days by the growing protest with activists from all parts of the country due to converge on the capital Monday.
Zardari's democratic government has been in power for a year but he had resisted reinstating the former chief justice, fearing the activist chief justice would hound his government, just as Musharraf's administration was challenged by the judiciary. Of particular concern to Zardari is the fate of a legal amnesty he enjoys, which has led to dozens of criminal cases against him being dropped.
"It is certainly a defining moment," said Munir Malik, a leader of the lawyers. "We've come a long way. This is just the beginning."
The government was under intense pressure, not only from the protesters but also from Pakistan's powerful army and western allies, to reach a settlement with the lawyers and the political opposition and to pull the nuclear-armed country from the brink of political collapse.
The decision to restore the chief justice was discussed during a meeting of Zardari, Gilani and army chief Ashfaq Kayani. Officials from the United States and Britain have mediated the talks between the government and Opposition Leader Nawaz Sharif for the last few days.
Not bothering to wait for an official announcement, however, hundreds of Chaudhry's ecstatic supporters gathered outside his home in the capital, dancing, clapping and chanting, anticipating victory.
A long line of lawyers, stretching from the gate of the house, waited in line for their turn to personally congratulate him, even as late as 4 a.m. local time on Monday.
Having to bow to the opposition could leave Zardari's position precarious and seemingly would deliver a heavy blow to his party, which he controversially took over after his wife Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in late 2007.
"President Zardari has always believed in reconciliation. Confrontation has been the path of his opponents, not him," insisted Farahnaz Ispahani, a member of the PPP and close Zardari aide. "The Prime Minister's announcement will only reinforce the government's commitment to reconciliation in accordance with the constitution and the spirit of democracy."
All roads into Islamabad were sealed, following violent clashes Sunday between police and opposition activists in the eastern city of Lahore, the penultimate destination of a so-called "long march" rally through the country to Islamabad.
"How long can they keep up this siege of Islamabad?" said Aitzaz Ahsan, a leader of the lawyers, "Every day there will be marches towards Islamabad."
Parts of Lahore were turned into a war zone, as police tear-gassed and baton-charged a previously peaceful crowd outside the Lahore high court, leading to some of the protesters fighting back. But events then turned in favor of the opposition.
Opposition leader Sharif managed to break out of a police cordon around his home in Lahore in defiance of a reported arrest warrant. His motorcade quickly attracted thousands of supporters, running alongside it through the streets, making it all but impossible to stop.
Police battling protesters at the high court suddenly pulled back after a couple of hours, leaving a jubilant crowd.
"I'm seeing a soft revolution happening in Pakistan," said Imran Khan, the former cricket player turned politician, who is a leader of the pro-judiciary movement. "This is the first time you're seeing the public mobilized. When a supposedly democratic government used the law to quash a peaceful demonstration, we saw the reaction of the people. The more the police attacked them, the more the crowd swelled up."
Around 200 vehicles left Lahore with Sharif for Islamabad late Sunday, local time, with large crowds coming out alone the route. The cavalcade was expected to mushroom, as it gets closer to the capital. The lawyers are also travelling in their own convoy.
Until Sunday, the authorities had thwarted the demonstrators in other towns by physically closing roads and arresting hundreds. But those tactics failed in Lahore and had to be abandoned after Sharif set off.
There has been frantic, behind-the-scenes, intervention by the U.S. and Britain, to try to pressure Sharif and Zardari's government to a political settlement. The West is concerned that key ally Pakistan is consumed in political infighting, taking the country's focus away from combating extremists on its soil, which pose a global menace.
Sunday, that foreign pressure continued, when both the British envoy to Islamabad, Robert Brinkley, and the American ambassador, Anne Patterson, called Prime Minister Gilani, according to sources in the prime minister's office. On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned both Sharif and Zardari, urging them to negotiate.
Zardari believes that Sharif is trying to bring the government down by exploiting the lawyers movement.
"I think the lawyers movement has been hijacked by political parties," Sumsaam Bukhari, a minister. "It is the responsibility of the state to guard the life and property of the people."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent in Islamabad.)
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