Pakistan takes a right turn
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - Just when it seemed that all efforts by the United States and the
Pakistani military had failed to defuse a rapidly escalating political crisis,
the government on Monday morning capitulated to the demands of protesters.
With thousands of people on the streets heading for the capital Islamabad,
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced on state television at 5:45am that
former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and other former
justices would be reinstated.
They were fired by then-president General Pervez Musharraf in
March 2007, a move that precipitated the lawyers' protests that came to a head
over the past few days.
Gilani's surprise announcement followed intense negotiations over the past few
days in which the lawyers and opposition political parties had flatly refused
to make any compromises with the government.
Gilani also promised that the government would revisit this month's Supreme
Court decision that barred former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother
Shahbaz from holding elected office. He also said that all demonstrators
arrested in recent days - including Nawaz Sharif - would be released.
It appears that Gilani had little choice. Local administrations and police had
completely defied the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) government and allowed
thousands of marchers to proceed to Islamabad. Significantly, the United States
had looked towards the army to intervene, but it was in no position to do so,
raising a serious question mark over the US's ability to influence decisions in
Pakistan, its chief ally in the regional war theater.
The US Embassy responded at 7am on Monday with with a statement: "We welcome
the announcement by the government of Pakistan of its plans to reinstate former
chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. This is a statesmanlike decision
taken to defuse a serious confrontation, and the apparent removal of this
long-standing national issue is a substantial step towards national
reconciliation. Now is the time for all Pakistanis and their political
representatives to work together, with the support of their friends and allies,
to peacefully strengthen their democracy and ensure a positive dialogue as they
move forward to deal with the many issues confronting them."
Apart from the issue of the reinstated judiciary, Monday's decision changes the
political dynamic in Pakistan.
The right-wing parties - Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the
Jamaat-i-Islami and Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, which were planned
by Washington to distance themselves from the post-February 2008 political
setup, have now established themselves as a decisive force.
Nawaz Sharif and the lawyers immediately welcomed the prime minister's
announcement and said they would end their long march to Islamabad.
This is not necessarily the end of such protest marches or unrest. Once
Chaudhry is sworn in on March 21, when current chief justice Abdul Hameed Dogar
retires, he is expected to carry on where he left off by challenging the very
issues which contributed to his dismissal in the first place.
Key among these is the credibility of the National Reconciliation Ordinance - a
presidential pardon - which Musharraf issued over the corruption cases against
now-President Asif Ali Zardari and other PPP leaders, which enabled them to
participate in elections and then form a government early last year.
There is also the issue of the many dozens of missing people, that is, people
detained for alleged "war on terror" crimes without trail. Prior to his
dismissal, Chaudhry had had run-ins with the military establishment over this.
Opposition stands firm A deal brokered by the US and Pakistan army at
the weekend got Zardari to accept a face-saving package under which he would
review the disqualification of the Sharif brothers. The leader of the PML-N,
Nawaz, had been barred from elected office and Shahbaz had been forced to step
down as chief justice of Punjab province.
The Americans had been frantically involved. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
spoke to Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani.
Earlier, US envoy Richard Holbrooke, US ambassador Anne W Peterson and other
officials had been active.
Everybody had expected that the American mediation would break the ice, but
opposition leaders on Sunday rejected their proposal and their supporters
continued to gather in vast numbers in Lahore. They said they would accept
nothing less than the restoration of judiciary and the sacking of all the
judges appointed and promoted by Musharraf and Zardari following this.
On Sunday evening, many police officers and local administration officials
resigned, saying they were not prepared to use force against protesters.
These included the deputy attorney general of Pakistan, the district
coordination officer of Lahore, the inspector general of the Punjab police and
the deputy inspector general of police in Lahore.
This seems to have been the final straw that forced the government to
capitulate as it feared it would not be able to contain the many thousands who
were to descend on the capital on Monday for a sit-in: whatever little writ of
government was left would collapse and nobody, including the army, could afford
The immediate political crisis in Pakistan has been defused, but the pot is
still boiling and Zardari's government remains under threat.
The leader of the House and a PPP federal minister, Mian Raza Rabbani, resigned
last week. Naheed Khan, the trusted political secretary of slain PPP leader
Benazir Bhutto - Zardari's wife - on Friday joined forces with the lawyers.
Bhutto died in the arms of Khan after the car in which they were travelling was
attacked in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007. Khan's husband, Safdar Abbasi, a
PPP leader and senator, stood beside her when she later addressed a lawyers'
However, the biggest blow has been the resignation of the minister of
information, Ms Sherry Rahman, on Friday evening after a government clampdown
on private television channels to stop them from covering the lawyers' march.
The victorious right-wing parties are now circling.
On Sunday, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the chief of the leading Islamic party, the
Jamaat-i-Islami, warned Washington to stay away and not to try to exert any
influence in Pakistan. Jamaat was the main engine of the lawyers' protests
because of its organized cadre. It also urged army chief Kiani to use his
influence to force the government into accepting the opposition's demands.
Zardari's ability to govern is now in question, as is the US's ability to mold
the country to suit its needs in the "war on terror". The annual Taliban
offensive in Afghanistan, of which Pakistan is an integral factor, is only
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org