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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.

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Exiled former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto, of the left-leaning Pakistan People's Party, and Mian Nawaz Sharif, of the nationalist Pakistan Muslim League, are also planning to petition the Supreme Court to guarantee their safe return to the country to run against Musharraf in presidential elections this fall.

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A disastrous judicial history

When it comes to dealing with military dictators like Musharraf, Pakistan's judiciary has a half century history of rulings that have tilted the political power dynamics in favor of the military.

The Supreme Court has legitimized military rule three times since independence – in 1958, 1977, and finally in 1999 when Musharraf seized control. In 1958, the court used a legal device known as the "doctrine of necessity," which is essentially a legal lifeline for the Constitution to guarantee the document's survival in the face of extraconstitutional regime changes.

But as a result of the Supreme Court's repeated acquiescence to the executive, it has been generally perceived as subservient to the Pakistani Army.

"In the past we had always talked of the military-judiciary-mullah troika," says Ms. Jahangir. But it was Pervez Musharraf, says Jahangir, who became the first military ruler to attempt to remove a chief justice and establish his supremacy over the very institution that has legitimized Army rule in the past.

But the judiciary seems to have drawn the line when its own power came in to question, and reinstated the chief justice by a vote of 10 to 3. "Now, for the first time we are seeing cracks in this relationship," says Jahangir.

Pakistanis await "historic decision"

Most Pakistanis were prepared for a celebration on Friday. In the days leading up to the verdict, Acting Chief Justice Khalil ur Rahman Ramday had hinted at a "historic decision," which many interpreted as a decision in favor of the chief justice. Still, some were worried that the Supreme Court would once again, as it has been known to do for decades, strike a deal with the executive and dilute its decision.

"Till this eve of the judgment the government was quite confident they would get a decision they could live with," says Najam Sethi, a journalist and commentator. Musharraf, he says, will have to do some serious thinking now that his government is faced with an unprecedented challenge from the judiciary. "I can't imagine he's a very happy man right now."

Most agree that the Supreme Court's decision on Friday is a historic first step toward a return to democracy.

"No institution of democracy can become independent without a struggle, and this is the first step in the struggle of the judiciary," says Mr. Sethi. "And though the pressure on the courts will continue, I expect it will find its equilibrium sooner rather than later."

In the meantime, even an apparently impartial, if not sympathetic, state institution is good enough for pro-democracy activists.

"There is a difference between the chief justice and the lawyer's movement," explains Jahangir. "The chief justice has been reinstated and that is done. But the lawyers' movement will continue, because the reason behind it remains: a dictatorial military regime that rules this country."