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Is democracy 'reborn' in Pakistan?

The decision on Friday to reinstate Pakistan's Supreme Court Chief Justice is a victory for democracy, but the euphoria around the decision may be premature.

By Shahan MuftiCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 23, 2007

Islamabad, Pakistan

The decision on Friday of a panel of supreme and high court judges to overturn the suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry inspired a burst of celebration from the lawyers who had gathered outside the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

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The case had been seen as an attempt by the military regime to consolidate its control over yet another pillar of the state. But before the street-dancing and showers of rose petals had ended, the lawyers and opponents of President Pervez Musharraf were already declaring that a freshly confident and independent judiciary will lead the charge to reinstate democratic norms that have been eroded over the decades.

Despite exaltations by lawyers and activists of a "rebirth of the country" in a democratic mold, the decision may mean little for a redefinition of the political power equation, some Pakistani legal experts say. The real test of the judiciary's strength will be in showing its independence from both the military government and political influence. Such objectivity, experts say, will also mean resisting the influence of pro-democracy activists who seek to empower the courts at President Musharraf's expense.

"This decision in itself doesn't actually assure an independent judiciary," says Asma Jahangir, a lawyer and the head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "The judiciary will have to take steps towards its own reform. There is still a long way to go."

Activist judges in Pakistan?

Many observers say that since Musharraf dismissed him on March 9, the chief justice appears to have remained aloof from political party leaders and has been careful to never address any rallies hosted by political parties. Some legal experts now fear that the decision has led some of Musharraf's opponents to expect the Supreme Court to act less like an unbiased arbitrator and more like pro-democracy activists.

"Politicians have failed the people of this country, and now they expect the judiciary to act where they have failed," says Senator Khalid Ranjha, a lawyer and a former law minister.

"There is a thin line between being proactive and getting involved in politics," says Senator Ranjha. "I hope we don't come to a stage where there is constant pressure on the courts – from people and politicians. The judiciary needs to be impervious to all kinds of pressure. Otherwise the entire system would be in danger of collapsing."

Several cases that are now in front of the Supreme Court, and others that may appear in the near future, will soon indicate how independent the judiciary is willing to be. The Supreme Court's verdict on a few of these cases may also set the tone for Pakistani politics in the near term.

This weekend, opposition parties announced their plans to file a constitutional petition against Musharraf to challenge both his right to simultaneously hold his Army post while seeking the presidency and the constitutional legitimacy of his seeking a third consecutive term as president.