By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
Zardari's turnabout came after thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of this leafy capital of Punjab province Sunday, throwing rocks at police and cheering wildly. A wide cross section of Pakistan's political, social and religious sectors joined the day-long protests.
As the demonstrations escalated, police first responded with volleys of tear gas. But by mid-afternoon they suddenly withdrew from the streets, while numerous city and provincial officials were reported to have resigned. The swift collapse of authority signaled the end of Zardari's bid to seize control of Punjab, the most politically influential region of the country, and raised serious questions about his ability to remain president.
"The present rulers are defaming every norm of democracy, and Zardari is behaving worse than a dictator. We will continue our march until the rule of law is restored," vowed Iqbal Haider before the judges' reinstatement was announced. Haider, a white-haired lawyer, was attorney general under slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
Bhutto, a charismatic leader and champion of democracy who was married to Zardari, held power twice and was assassinated in 2007 while planning a political comeback. Her widower became leader of the Pakistan People's Party and pledged to mend fences with her rival, Sharif, but the alliance quickly soured.
There was no public appearance or statement Sunday by Zardari, but his new information minister, Qamar Zaman Kaira, told journalists in Islamabad that the government hoped to resolve its differences with the opposition through amicable negotiation. Kaira replaced Sherry Rehman, who abruptly resigned from the post late Friday night after the government temporarily blocked transmission of a major independent news channel. Several members of Zardari's party have defected in the past week, including three members of Parliament.
In another sign of the government's weakening grip, key opposition leaders in Lahore, including Sharif and legal dissident Aitzaz Ahsan, began the day under house arrest and ended it leading caravans of supporters through the streets. At dusk, Ahsan addressed supporters inside the Lahore High Court compound.
Pakistani news media reported that several other opposition leaders, including Sharif's brother Shahbaz and the heads of other political parties, had reached Rawalpindi, a garrison city about 15 miles from Islamabad, and were hiding in private homes waiting to join the marchers and move toward the capital.
"The writ of the government has ended. Nobody can stop us from reaching Islamabad," Ahsan told a cheering crowd of lawyers. As night fell in Lahore, streets that had been full of tear gas and flying rocks during the day became scenes of celebration. People danced, sang and waved banners atop cars and trucks as smiling police watched from the sidelines, riot gear discarded on the ground.
Several police officers said they were relieved to have been pulled back from the protest areas, and also said they supported the Sharifs. Punjab has traditionally been a stronghold of the Sharif brothers, and Zardari's imposition of central authority last month was extremely unpopular.
With Zardari rapidly losing control, officials in Islamabad scrambled to find a way out. Kaira said officials would ask the high court to review its decision last month to bar the Sharifs from politics.
But the protesters, flush with success, were in no mood to negotiate. They included hundreds of lawyers, activists from Sharif's Muslim League, conservative Muslims from the Jamaat-i-Islami religious party, women from civic and human rights groups, followers of former cricket champion and politician Imran Khan, and disaffected members of Zardari's Pakistan People's Party.
"We have already achieved success. The whole city has come out to support us, and the government is helpless," said Mohammed Fareed Chaudhry, 55, a lawyer. "We respect and appreciate all the parties and groups that have joined our cause. It is only a matter of hours or days before Zardari will have to leave power."
Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.