By Mubasher Bukhari
LAHORE Pakistan (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters preparing to march on the Pakistani capital gathered in the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday, buoyed by a last-minute court order that a peaceful march could go ahead and a government promise to obey the ruling.
The festive air at the home of cricketer-turned-opposition politician Imran Khan was in stark contrast to the grim determination at the blockaded home of cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, another would-be protest leader whose march has been banned.
Khan and Qadri are not officially allied though both are calling for the ouster of a government they condemn as corrupt, which came to power after a sweeping general election victory for the party of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last year.
"We are the ones who pose the biggest challenge to the government, that is why they are opposing us so strongly," Qadri's spokesman, Shahid Mursaleen, said late on Wednesday.
"The police are killing us and our people only have sticks to protect themselves."
The protests have raised tension in the nuclear-armed country of 180-million people and have revived concern about the central issue in Pakistani politics: competition for power between the military and civilian leaders.
Any threat to Pakistan's stability alarms its allies and neighbors, who fear rising religious intolerance and the Islamist militants who find refuge there.
Some officials had accused elements within the powerful military of orchestrating the protests to weaken the civilian government. The military has declined to comment but has previously said it does not meddle in politics.
Many analysts doubt whether the military wants to seize power, but there is a widespread perception it could use the opportunity to put the civilian government under its thumb.
Sharif is relying on the military for security in the face of the challenges, and, as a result, the government is likely to be less determined to pursue polices the military objects to, such as the prosecution on treason charges of former military leader Pervez Musharraf, analysts say.
DIVIDE AND RULE?
By early on Thursday, the government appeared to have developed a strategy to blunt the challenge to its power with the contrasting approaches to the two marches neatly splitting its foes.
Late on Wednesday, a court ruled that Khan's march would be permitted, as long as nothing illegal was done, and Sharif's interior minister said the government would respect that ruling.
Allowing Khan's march demonstrated that the government tolerated peaceful protests and obeyed the courts, who are rapidly emerging as Pakistan's third power center after the military and the fledgling civilian government.
At Khan's home, protesters were chanting, listening to music and preparing to set off on the 370-km (230-mile) journey form Lahore to Islamabad, said Asad Umar, a member of parliament from Khan's party.
Khan is protesting about alleged irregularities in last year's polls, which marked the first transfer of power from one elected government to another in coup-prone Pakistan's history.
As Khan's supporters prepared to march, Qadri's supporters, who had planned to join them, were isolated and blockaded in the area around his home by shipping containers placed across roads by the authorities. Those inside said food and water were running low and telephone services in the area were suspended.
The fiery cleric had vowed to overthrow the government by the end of this month. His supporters, many of them drawn from his network of Islamic schools and charities, have been involved in several deadly clashes with police.
(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld and Syed Raza Hassan in Islamabad; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Robert Birsel)