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    South Asia
     Mar 17, 2009
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 to intervene.

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' rally.

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 weeks away.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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