Pakistan will hold elections as scheduled in January, ministers said on Monday in a reversal of weekend suggestions that they would be postponed for up to a year.
The change of heart came as police armed with tear gas and staves fought lawyers in Lahore and arrested hundreds of others in the first sign that General Pervez Musharraf, the president, may have miscalculated the extent to which civil society is ready to take to the streets in defence of democracy.
Gen Musharraf last night came under intense US pressure to restore civilian rule and to release about 1,500 people detained under emergency provisions announced at the weekend.
The barrage of international criticism of de facto martial law appeared to be having an effect.
Shaukat Aziz, the prime minister, said: “Our thinking about the election is that it will be held according to schedule.”
Malik Abdul Qayyum, the attorney-general, said Pakistan’s national and provincial assemblies would be dissolved in 10 days’ time. “It has been decided there would be no delay in the election and by November 15, these assemblies will be dissolved and the election will be held within the next 60 days,” he told Reuters.
Gen Musharraf has been fighting for his political future since March, when he sparked a crisis by trying unsuccessfully to dismiss the supreme court chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was sacked for a second time on Saturday.
“You can’t defy the whole world,” one minister told the FT, noting that the dismissal of the chief justice had removed an important obstacle to Gen Musharraf’s plans to have his re-election as president validated by the supreme court.
Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, said President George W. Bush was urging the Pakistani president to restore constitutional rule, adding that the US was “deeply disturbed” by Gen Musharraf’s move.
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary and source of much of the financial support that the US provides Pakistan’s military establishment, piled on the pressure, joining state department officials in threatening a review of aid programmes.
The Pentagon also postponed defence co-operation talks scheduled for this week.
Asked by Islamabad-based diplomats whether he would keep a promise to step out of uniform by November 15 and to hold elections in January, Gen Musharraf said he intended to do both eventually, but could no longer guarantee the timing.
Pakistan’s political parties have so far failed to bring their supporters on to the streets in support of the legal community, reflecting in part the success of the government’s strategy of dividing and ruling rival groups and leaders.
Opposition politicians from parties that have taken a confrontational approach to the former commando’s re-election plans have been detained under house arrest, while ones from Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s party have not.
Ms Bhutto, who has been negotiating a power-sharing arrangement with Gen Musharraf, has criticised the state of emergency and the scale of the arrests, but was on Monday expected to fly to Islamabad for further talks with the army chief.