ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani police have arrested more than a dozen opposition activists in a bid to scupper protests against President Pervez Musharraf’s plans for re-election on October 6, officials said.
Most of those arrested in the capital Islamabad late on Saturday belonged to the party led by exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whose return to Pakistan was blocked earlier this month, and from parties in a conservative religious alliance.
“We have detained 14 people as a preventive measure. They have given calls for protests and we have fears that they may create disturbances in the coming days,” Islamabad’s top administrator, Chaudhry Mohammad Ali, told Reuters.
Ali said he expected more arrests to be made on Sunday.
The chairman of Sharif’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, and firebrand leader Javed Hashmi were among those arrested, along with Hussain Ahmed, a central leader of the religious alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA).
PML-N spokesman Ehsan Iqbal described the action as “cowardly,” and said the government was in a panic over the opposition plan to resign en masse from parliament once Musharraf’s nomination papers were accepted on September 29.
“They only strengthen our resolve and prove that this is a sham democracy,” said Iqbal.
U.S. ally General Musharraf is waiting to hear whether the Supreme Court, regarded as hostile since his attempt to sack the country’s top judge, will uphold challenges to his plan to get elected while still army chief.
Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup, has pledged to step down as army chief and become a civilian president before November 15 if he is re-elected.
The court is hearing petitions challenging Musharraf’s right to retain the posts of president and army chief, the legality of being elected in uniform, and whether he should be allowed to get a mandate from outgoing assemblies.
It is expected to issue a ruling next week.
Once the presidential election is over, a national election should be held by mid-January, and pollsters predict the ruling coalition supporting Musharraf will be a heavy loser, forcing the president to seek new allies.
The opposition resignation threat will lack real bite unless the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by Benazir Bhutto, another former premier, joins in.
Bhutto has been in power-sharing talks with Musharraf, and she has said she will return from more than eight years of self-exile on October 18.
Bhutto has said her members might also give up their seats if Musharraf did not take steps to restore democracy.
If the whole opposition resigned ahead of the presidential election, Musharraf would win, but the action would dent the vote’s credibility.
The vote would keep respectability if PPP members simply abstained, but didn’t resign their seats.
If the vote is blocked by the Supreme Court, there is speculation that Musharraf could dissolve the assemblies, or declare emergency rule of nuclear-armed Pakistan.