Pakistani Leader Bows to Pressure
Monday, March 16, 2009
LAHORE, Pakistan, March 16 -- Unable to crush street protests Sunday that spilled out of this city and threatened to reach the capital, the Pakistani government announced early Monday morning that it would restore the former chief justice of the Supreme Court and a group of other deposed judges in a major capitulation to opponents.
The move reflected the weakening position of President Asif Ali Zardari, a key U.S. ally, but it also signaled a peaceful end to a mounting political crisis in the nuclear-armed Muslim nation of 172 million. Zardari had resisted bringing back former chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry for months, but he faced mounting pressure from a broad coalition of opponents who demanded the reinstatement of Pakistan's independent judiciary and threatened to march on the capital, Islamabad, until Chaudhry was brought back.
The decision marked an extraordinary victory for Pakistan's legal community, which has been agitating peacefully for the judges' reinstatement for the past two years, and for Zardari's major political rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who joined the lawyers' crusade last month and quickly became its most forceful advocate.
Sharif, who led an all-night protest caravan on a highway towards Islamabad, the capital, halted it at the town of Gujranwala on Monday morning and announced he was calling off the "long march" in response to the government's move. Sharif congratulated Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, who announced the measure in a brief televised address at 6 a.m.
"It is time to fulfill promises," Gillani said. "Democracy cannot flourish without strong institutions." He said Chaudhry would be reinstated by executive order March 21, and he also announced that the government would immediately lift an emergency ban on all public gatherings and release all political and legal activists arrested in the last week.
The U.S. government, which had been pressing Zardari and Sharif to find a peaceful way out of the crisis, immediately welcomed the move. In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad called Gillani's announcement "statesmanlike" and a "substantial step towards national reconciliation."
As word of the expected announcement spread early morning Monday, Pakistani television stations showed jubilant crowds gathering around Chaudhry's house in Islamabad. Celebrations also erupted in the Sharif-led caravan, which was traveling through the night from Lahore.
"This will restore stability to Pakistan," Athar Minallah, a spokesman for Chaudhry, said early Monday, as analysts suggested the move and other concessions offered by the government might heal the rift between Zardari and Sharif.
Pakistan faces a raging Islamist insurgency and a deepening economic crisis. The growing confrontation between Zardari and a coalition of primarily secular opponents has alarmed Washington and raised the prospect of a possible army coup, just one year after Pakistan emerged from a decade of military rule.
The government had sealed off Islamabad with shipping containers and other barricades late Saturday in an attempt to prevent the marchers from entering the federal government district. But as rumors of Chaudhry's restoration spread, many police barricades were withdrawn from the Grand Trunk Road and hundreds of people joined the procession in towns along the way.
Chaudhry and the other judges were fired in 2007 by Pakistan's former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, because they refused to take an oath under his amended constitution.
Zardari had publicly insisted that the judges could not be restored until Pakistan's Parliament had a chance to make broader changes to the constitution. But many Pakistanis and foreign observers believed the president reneged on his pledge to restore them because he feared that the independent-minded Chaudhry would reopen old corruption cases against him and might also overturn many of his actions as president.