Judiciary issue may unite Pakistan's divided opposition

Musharraf's manifold critics – representing all political persuasions, from Bhutto's secular populist front to conservative Islamists – are beginning to take to the streets under the banner of judicial independence.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In his first public comments since he imposed a state of emergency over a week ago, President Pervez Musharraf's announcement on Sunday, that Pakistani elections would be held before the Islamic New Year on Jan. 9 and that he would quit the Army and rule as a civilian, did little to mollify his opposition.

Instead, Mr. Musharraf's manifold critics – representing all political persuasions, from Benazir Bhutto's secular populist front to conservative Islamists – are beginning to take to the streets. And their comments over the weekend reveal that this once disparate political group has found a more unified voice around a tangible and now familiar demand: the reinstatement of removed Supreme Court judges.

"Political protests and activism have been demonized through the decades and that's why the lawyers' movement has really differentiated itself so far by calling itself a legal struggle," says Babar Sattar, a Harvard-trained lawyer with a practice in Islamabad. "But philosophically speaking, it is a political struggle," he admits, because the judiciary defines the boundaries of political power between the other pillars of the state and the military.

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Rallied around a single cause, some analysts say that these opposition parties, which have often worked at cross-purposes with one another, may now begin to put aside partisan interests and use the current upheaval to secure a permanent solution to the military's incursion into politics.

The rise of the judiciary earlier this year as a check to Musharraf's executive power has "energized the political opposition instantly," says Naseer Sajjad, a professor of political science at the Lahore School of Economics. Until the latest crisis, "the political forces in the country, which had operated for eight years under Musharraf, knew that there was little space to confront him," says Mr. Sajjad.

The judiciary has emerged as the only institutional force in Pakistan's 60-year history that has been able to stand up to periodic military rule, and political parties seemed to have learned a lesson from its defiance. But the demand for real judicial independence, analysts say, is one that Musharraf could fulfill only at the expense of his own supreme power.

Ms. Bhutto, the opposition leader who is friendliest with Musharraf, also stood to gain from the judges' sacking as they were reviewing a case that could have reactivated criminal corruption charges against her. Still, while she welcomed the president's statements this weekend, she made clear her stance on the judiciary by saying that sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was still the "real chief justice." On Saturday, she was barred by police from visiting him at his Islamabad home.

Nawaz Sharif, the other exiled former prime minister has echoed the sentiment, saying that elections under the present rules and without an independent judiciary would be a "sham." Meanwhile, the leader of the Movement for Justice Party, Imran Khan, has promised to lead a mass street movement until all the Supreme Court judges are restored.

Despite the enthusiasm for reinstating the judiciary, some observers expect that as the deadline for the elections approaches, the lure of power may expose cracks in the opposition movement. Some political parties may decide that, in the long-term power calculations, opting out of elections will prove too damaging. The experience from elections under military rule in the 1980s showed that "those who boycotted lost out," says Mr. Sattar. "Nobody wants to get left out."

Musharraf's problems with the Supreme Court began in earnest earlier this year when he decided to remove the country's top judge, Chief Justice Chaudhry. A countrywide movement led by lawyers followed and it managed to not only get the judge reinstated but also mobilized a largely fragmented opposition and civil society. Ever since then, the Supreme Court has been a symbol for the larger struggle against Musharraf's military rule.

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