Pakistan’s government has agree to reinstate ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhamad Chaudry in an effort to defuse violent protests in Lahore that have the country in turmoil.
Chris Brummit for AP:
Pakistan’s government relented in a major confrontation with the opposition Monday, agreeing to reinstate a fired Supreme Court chief justice whose fate had sparked street fights and raised fears of political instability.
A dawn announcement by the prime minister that Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry would be sworn back in on March 21 capped a weekend of high drama and led activist lawyers and opposition politicians to drop plans to march on the capital and stage a sit-in at Parliament later in the day.
The U.S Embassy praised the decision as “statesmanlike,” but it also was a significant concession that showed the weakness of U.S.-allied President Asif Ali Zardari, who had long refused to restore the independent-minded Chaudhry despite demands by lawyers and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. Already, attempts to quell the protest movement — through arrests and bans on rallies — have exposed cracks in the ruling party.
Time‘s Omar Waraich describes the situation that led to Zardari’s backing down:
Even by Pakistan‘s standards, where violence has routinely scarred the landscape, the scenes were startling. For several hours on Sunday, the heart of this eastern city was witness to street battles as baton-wielding police mounted a fierce but ultimately failed attempt to crush a gathering of antigovernment lawyers and political activists.
As the country’s enduring political confrontation entered its decisive phase, President Asif Ali Zardari pressed on with his crackdown on opposition groups in a bid to thwart a “long march” for the reinstatement of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. After hundreds of arrests and accusations of a media clampdown, police blocked off Lahore‘s main thoroughfares as orders were reportedly issued to confine former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other political leaders to house arrest.
Deutsche Welle notes an immediate positive outcome: “Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who defied a government ban to lead weekend demonstrations, has called off a planned protest march to Islamabad. “
The middle class Pakistanis that BBC talked to in Karachi seem jubilant by this turn of events, seeing it as democracy in action. Commentators elsewhere are less sanguine.
Reuters plays out various scenarios, including tensions over Sharif’s eligibility, conflict over Punjab, legal problems, and more stable politics. The last of these is the least likely. They predict that, “Tension will linger between Zardari and Sharif whose parties, the countries’ two biggest, have long been rivals” and add that, “Analysts say there is no trust between the men and both are hard-nosed political battlers.”
Mark Wade of Australia’s The Age sees a dire situation: “Mr Zardari is locked in an escalating power struggle with his political rival, the former prime minister and main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, that is endangering the country’s fragile democracy.” His paper’s editorial team offers a counterintuitive analysis:
In most democracies, a demonstration calling for the reinstatement of a judge sacked for political reasons would be a good sign. The protest would be seen as testifying to the strength of the country’s adherence to the rule of law and constitutional process — especially if it led to the judge’s reinstatement . . . . Expectations that might be reasonable elsewhere do not, however, necessarily apply in Pakistan, which has known democratic and constitutional rule for less than half of its 61 years of independence.
Whether the long march becomes a revolution of any kind will probably depend on the attitude taken by the army. There is a real danger that Pakistan’s present period of democratic rule, barely a year old, will go the way of most of those that have preceded it, with the generals deciding that neither President Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party nor Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N can be trusted to keep the country together. And the truth is that, although the present crisis arose out of a movement to defend the independence of the judiciary, neither leader has strong democratic credentials.
New Dehli’s NDTV proclaims that “the politics of Pakistan has been turned topsy-turvy” and assesses the winners and losers thusly:
The clear and obvious winner is Nawaz Sharif, Chief of the PML-N, who’s emerged politically stronger. Since Sunday morning when he defied Zardari’s order of house arrest, he’s had virtually the whole of Pakistan rallying behind him. By the middle of Sunday night, he forced the President of Pakistan to give in to all of his demands.
Another subtle winner who emerged out of this crisis was Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani. He not only stood up to the President, but handled the crisis well. With his pragmatism and closeness to the Army Chief he’s emerged as the civilian leader with more control and greater political skill than his boss, President Zardari.
The crisis has established General Kayani as the power behind the civilian government. He backed Gilani and it was his repeated interventions and meetings with the civilian leadership including late on Sunday night that helped defuse the showdown between Zardari and Sharif.
And lastly, the one who seemed to have lost out in all of this, is President Zardari. He’s been completely isolated and politically out-maneuvered. He’s been slammed, with some saying he’s suffered a moral loss.
The Hindu has a similar analysis and wonders if Zardari is “on the way out.” They figure that, “Even if he stays, one thing is for sure: his reputation is in tatters and many of his powers could be taken away from the presidency and restored to the prime minister’s office.”
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.