ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - An extraordinary mass rally in support of Pakistan's suspended chief justice is increasing the pressure on President Pervez Musharraf to end nearly eight years of military rule.
He still appears to have the backing of fellow generals and the United States, but the growing protests and a blizzard of legal challenges to his suspension of the top judge have thrown plans for another presidential term into turmoil.
"This is a middle-class revolt for the rule of law," said Ayesha Siddiqa Agha, a political analyst. "Musharraf's options are narrowing by the day."
Loyalists insist that Musharraf's March 9 decision to suspend Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry was nonpolitical. But many observers suspect a ploy to remove an independent-minded judge who could obstruct the general's plans to stay in power. Chaudhry, who became chief justice in 2005, has a reputation for challenging government actions and human-rights abuses.
On Sunday, an estimated 20,000 people, most of them lawyers and opposition-party supporters, gathered in downtown Lahore, Pakistan's main eastern city, after Chaudhry traveled 170 miles in a grand convoy from Islamabad.
After weeks of carefully avoiding comments that could be construed as political, Chaudhry declared in a speech broadcast live by private TV networks that dictatorship had had its day.
"The dictatorial system of government and the concept of concentration of power is now ended," Chaudhry said. "All these are bitter lessons of history."
The nation's railways minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a close Musharraf ally, said the rally would not affect the president's future.
"There were not so many people," Ahmed said. "The media was there and gave it great projection."
But some described the turnout for Chaudhry as the most significant since crowds greeted former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as she returned from exile to Lahore in 1986.
Several newspapers yesterday urged Musharraf to reinstate Chaudhry and cool the political climate.
They also echoed opposition demands for Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, to give up his army post before he asks lawmakers for another five-year term. Critics say keeping both posts would breach the constitution and are unhappy that Musharraf will seek a new term from the departing assemblies, which were chosen in flawed 2002 elections.
"The man whom the nation welcomed and whose actions it approved in the beginning is gradually losing credibility," the Daily Times newspaper said in a blistering editorial. "His most fatal flaw has been his pretense of 'moderation' and 'enlightenment,' which can no longer be disguised."
To shore up support in the elections, Musharraf's envoys have been talking to Bhutto - who went back into exile in 1999 to avoid corruption charges - about a political pact that could allow her return.
Bhutto's Peoples Party is Pakistan's largest and appears a natural ally for Musharraf's long-standing promises to rein in Islamic extremism and make the country into a moderate, progressive democracy.
But Bhutto also wants Musharraf to remove his uniform.
The general insists that the elections, the showpiece of his promise to restore democracy after eight years in power, will go ahead as scheduled. He has already begun campaigning.
However, weekend remarks by his prime minister fueled speculation.Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said Sunday that the constitution allowed officials to declare an emergency, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan wrote.
Aziz did not elaborate on the remark, which was in response to a reporter's question, or suggest the government was considering the move. Still, the comment made front-page news.
Others suggest that Musharraf, who has brought a degree of political and economic stability to Pakistan, is more likely to beat a tactical retreat by reinstating the chief justice and firing some ministers - such as Aziz - for giving bad advice.
In a move that could further drag out the judicial crisis, the Supreme Court yesterday decided to suspend hearings in Chaudhry's case until it has ruled on more than 20 objections, including one filed by Chaudhry, to Musharraf's move against the judge.
Coming just a day after the Lahore rally, the ruling was immediately pounced on by Chaudhry's lawyers as a setback for the government.