The political crisis in Pakistan is intensifying, as police arrest hundreds of lawyers and opposition activists across the country on the eve of nationwide protests. Political gatherings have been banned in two key provinces as well.
Protesters are demanding an independent judiciary and the reinstatement of Iftikhar Chaudhry, the Supreme Court chief justice fired by former President Pervez Musharraf.
Pakistan's current president, Asif Ali Zardari, repeatedly promised to do both things, but now is refusing.
Zardari has long infuriated the lawyers' movement and ordinary people by backing down on the promise to restore the chief justice.
Chaudhry is considered a national hero in Pakistan for his resistance to Musharraf's autocratic decrees — a first in Pakistan, NPR's Anne Garrels tells Michele Norris.
But despite his repeated pledges of support, Zardari and others in high places seem to have reasons to keep Chaudhry off the bench, Garrels says.
For instance, Chaudhry could revisit the amnesty Musharraf gave Zardari, who faced a range of corruption charges, that allowed Zardari to come back to the country to run for office. Also, the military fears that Chaudhry could review the cases of hundreds of Pakistanis missing in secret detention.
The second factor at play in the crisis is that the current Supreme Court, considered illegal by many, recently banned Zardari's main opponents, Nawaz Sharif and his brother, from holding office. Garrels says there is evidence to support the widely held belief that Zardari himself was behind the ban, and this was seen as another example of the judiciary caving.
The lawyers and the Sharifs have now joined forces, and together will be capable of mobilizing large groups of Pakistanis. Zardari may have created a monster he just can't control, Garrels says.
Analysts say the president can't afford to let thousands of protesters come to the capital, Islamabad, for what they say will be an indefinite sit-in in front of Parliament.
Nawaz Sharif and other march leaders have said they're not trying to overthrow the government, but launch a "new" and "just" Pakistan. But the government interprets their words to be treasonous.
As the raids continue, many lawyers and opposition figures have gone into hiding — among them, the leader of the lawyers' movement, who has so far escaped arrest. But it is unclear if the march will be able to go forward, how many people will join in, and whether there will be violence if the police try to stop the marchers.
The protesters' plan is to begin from several cities where meetings have now been banned and then converge on Islamabad on March 16. The federal government has said the march will not be permitted to enter the city, and that's a position many fear could result in clashes. Each side is warning that if violence breaks out, the other will be to blame.