The government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is facing a cacophony of domestic and foreign pressures, its worst crisis since he took power in early 1997. Almost its only defender is the Clinton administration, which wants to see Pakistani democracy preserved even if it means sustaining this deeply unpopular government.
Over the past month, Sharif has had to juggle furiously just to stay in place. Army leaders, humiliated by his decision to withdraw from a border conflict with India in July, have come close to breaking with his government. Opposition parties, normally divided into hostile factions, have come together in rallies to demand his ouster. And, in the last week, some key figures in his own Pakistan Muslim League have joined the chorus.
"We were jailed and beaten for him when he was the opposition leader, but now that he's in power he has forgotten all his promises. He has turned this into a one-family government," said Chaudry Mohammed Sarwar, a deputy mayor of Lahore and a longtime Sharif disciple. "I think he should resign within one minute."
Pakistan's democracy has been periodically shattered by military takeovers since gaining its independence from Britain in 1947, and its civilian institutions have been weakened by corruption. Currently, military tensions are high between Pakistan and India, both of which have tested nuclear weapons within the last 18 months, leading to heightened concern abroad that a government collapse in Islamabad could endanger peace and strengthen Islamic extremist groups in the region.
Abroad, Sharif is under pressure from international lenders and officials in Washington to adopt measures that would make him even less popular at home, from raising taxes to signing a nuclear test ban treaty. With Pakistan in an economic tailspin, and a $280 million International Monetary Fund loan hanging in the balance, the government is desperate to mollify foreign financiers without further alienating the public.
Sharif has weathered numerous crises, and he has gradually insulated himself in power by legally blocking various sources of dissent, from the presidency to the parliament to the press. On the eve of an opposition strike Sept. 4, he ordered the arrest of several thousand activists and issued a law that added such strikes to a list of banned "terrorist" activities. No major rallies have been attempted since.
"The government is vulnerable, but its downfall is not imminent," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of strategic studies at Quaid-I-Azam University. "Nawaz has his hands on all the levers of power, but there is a growing perception that he is unable to govern. The chinks in his armor are beginning to show, although it's not clear yet whether they will widen into serious cracks."
Despite his personally powerful position, analysts said Sharif has little idea how to restore confidence in a government that has lost credibility at home and abroad. For the second time in three months, they said, the prime minister has turned to Washington for help.
As Pakistan's border conflict with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir threatened to become a full-scale war in July, Sharif rushed to Washington and then suddenly announced, with President Clinton at his side, that he would pull back the fighters. American officials were relieved, but many Pakistanis were furious, and the military was livid.
As a showdown over the border conflict between Sharif and Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the army chief of staff, loomed three weeks ago, several Sharif emissaries visited Washington. On Sept. 20, a Clinton administration official warned that the United States would "strongly oppose any attempt to change the government through extra-constitutional means."
"At first I thought it was a misquote. There was absolutely no reason for it," said Brig. Rashid Qureshi, army spokesman.
Qureshi acknowledged "dissatisfaction" in the army over Sharif's decision to pull back from the border, but he insisted the military is eager to work with civilian officials to save Pakistan from disaster.
"Our back is to the wall; in fact there is no wall," Qureshi said. "There are no power-hungry generals. We want to help, and that should not be misconstrued."
In the past several weeks, a number of resignations and appointments among top military officials appear to have resulted in a truce between Sharif and Musharraf. But diplomats and other analysts said that while a coup d'etat is hardly imminent, civil-military relations remain tense, and disorder in the economy or in the streets could trigger military intervention.
Publicly, American diplomats here have said the U.S. warning was aimed at all sectors of Pakistani power, not just the army. They are convinced that whatever Sharif's flaws, Pakistani democracy must be bolstered against the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism and nuclear war.
At the same time, the diplomats said Washington has continued to press Sharif and his aides to take action on both issues, by signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and resuming negotiations with India. The officials also said the U.S. government has pressured Pakistan to use its influence with Afghanistan's radical Taliban regime to urge a crackdown on Islamic terrorism, believing that exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden is orchestrating the attacks from there.
The terrorist issue is resonating loudly inside Pakistan, where a spate of gruesome slayings and warnings by Muslim extremist groups have aroused alarm. Last week, after two years of tacitly supporting the Taliban, the government strongly warned Afghanistan against exporting such terrorism.
Yet across the country, there is widespread sympathy for conservative Islamic causes and deep mistrust of India, a longtime rival that is 80 percent Hindu. Even secular, middle-class Pakistanis who fear nuclear war and a breakdown of civil order say they resent Washington's arm-twisting and Sharif's obliging responses on these issues.
But the issue that is increasingly uniting Pakistanis in bitter disillusionment is the economy. This is the issue that neither sympathy nor scolding from Washington can solve, that even Sharif supporters admit could ultimately bring down the government.
Voters elected Sharif, the scion of a wealthy industrial family, largely because he pledged to revive Pakistan's ailing economy. Two and a half years later, foreign investment is dead, prices are spiraling, the $32 billion foreign debt has devoured revenues and unemployment is at an all-time high.
"We are not the enemy of Nawaz Sharif, but we are very disappointed. We only want to survive, and instead we are dying," said Ghulam Hassain, a shoemaker in Lahore, who has laid off seven of 10 cobblers in his shop and expects his electricity to be cut off next week. "Usually one weeps when a leader dies, but now the whole nation is weeping, even though our leader is still alive."
CAPTION: Khurram Aftab of Pakistani Muslim League prepares flags for a meeting of dissidents who are unhappy with party's own--Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.