Big win for Pakistan protesters

The government agreed Monday to restore deposed judges. Activists want further reforms.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    CHEERS: Lawyers greeted Chief Justice Chaudhry (c.) in Islamabad Monday, jubilant that he is set to be reinstated soon.
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    CAUSE TO CELEBRATE: Lawyers in Peshawar celebrated Monday after the government agreed to reinstate former Chief Justice Iftkhar Chaudhry. The decision defused mounting protest.
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They came with flags, candies, and chants of "Rule of law!" Thousands of jubilant Pakistanis made a pilgrimage to the residence of former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry early Monday, saying that Pakistan had proved itself worthy of the name of democracy.

A popular movement had forced the government to promise to reinstate Mr. Chaudhry – acceding to a key curb on its power. In the past such action has only happened through military coups.

"We've been waiting for this some 60 years," says Ansa Nadeen, who flew from Karachi to join the protests. "We kept quiet for too long."

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While the threat of protests has dissipated and euphoria taken hold, contentious political battles still lie ahead. Activists and opposition members are pressing for further reforms, such as devolving power from the president, and hope that popular input, putting principles over party leaders, and military calm will bolster future decisionmaking.

"This is an extremely important day, but the real task has now started: how to maintain the victory of the people," says Khalid Rahman, head of the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad. "If this is the only decision that has taken place and later no other decision is made, I think there will be a lot of problems." The surging popularity of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif gives the ruling Pakistan People's Party an incentive to continue working with the opposition and agreeing to reforms, Mr. Rahman continues. If the PPP drags its feet, that could give Mr. Sharif an avenue to power.

For the time being, there appears to be little appetite for upsetting the fragile political order by calling early elections.

Still, the PPP appears to be keeping its unpopular leader, President Asif Ali Zardari, out of the limelight. It was Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani who announced the decision Monday morning to restore the remaining handful of 60 judges sacked in 2007 under then-president and Army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Mr. Gilani also has assured the opposition that remaining questions will be considered in light of the Charter of Democracy, a deal struck in 2006 between Sharif and Mr. Zardari's slain wife, Benazir Bhutto.

The opposition responded positively, indicating that the prime minister – as opposed to Zardari – is someone they trust. "We believe in the prime minister," says Siddique ul-Farooque, spokesman for Sharif's PML-N party. He says his party anticipates that Gilani will call all party leaders together for meetings shortly to come up with a legislative package of reforms.

Thorny issues lie ahead

One of the earliest decisions to tackle: Who will rule the Punjab?

The province is a stronghold for Sharif, whose brother had been chief minister there before a controversial court ruling last month disqualified both brothers from public office. The government said over the weekend it will file a petition for the case to be reconsidered. If overturned, some arrangement would still be needed to return Sharif's brother to power.

One of the concerns surrounding Sharif is whether his calls for a restored judiciary were simply a means to resolve the Punjab controversy. He might lose some popular support if he gets his wishes in Punjab and stops fighting for a broader agenda, says Rahman.

Those broader concerns include special powers given to the presidency under Musharraf, which the PPP promised to devolve back to the prime minister but has yet to do.

Another issue is what to do with the judges that Musharraf and Zardari appointed to replace the deposed judges. The lawyers who launched the mass protests see those replacements as loyal to the president, arguing that they were neither chosen in consultation with high-court justices nor qualified to serve.

"These are cases of simply packing the courts," says Wajihuddin Ahmad, a former Supreme Court justice. "Because these appointments have been so poorly made and involve people who have no qualifications, that makes the work of clearing them away easier."

Mr. Ahmad estimates that these appointees account for roughly half of the 120 justices across the high-court system. It's not clear if Zardari would agree to their removal since their loyalty might insulate him from any legal challenges. Many analysts say that Zardari had resisted reinstating Chaudhry because the independent chief justice might decide to invalidate an agreement that shields Zardari from previous corruption charges.

Zardari will also face a challenge over the 17th Amendment, which gives him the ability to dissolve parliament. That provision has effectively elevated his position above the office of the prime minister and weakened the legislature. The Charter of Democracy, however, calls for the prime minister to be elevated and for judges to be appointed through consultation, making Gilani's nod to the document significant.

In recent days, the British Foreign Office has also highlighted the charter. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her representative to the region, Richard Holbrooke, both called Pakistani leaders at the height of the tensions late last week. The Army Chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani also played a mediating role.

Public opinion vs. Washington's

These behind-the-scenes efforts generally drew praise here – but mostly because the interventions seemed to come in the form of mediation, not ultimatum.

One of the hopes for the independent judiciary, among those gathered at the chief justice's home, is that it might usher in leaders who would be more responsive to public opinion – and, by extension, less responsive to Washington.

"I'm sure that once we have an independent judiciary there will be protections for democracy, and this will lessen the interference" from abroad, says Muhammad Ikram Chaudhry, a former vice president of the Supreme Court Bar Association.

Analysts here see limited impact on the US-Pakistani relationship. "It perhaps opens a window for the political leadership to ... preclude the possibilities of interference from nonpolitical [i.e. military] and non-Pakistani actors," says Imtiaz Gul, head of the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. Zardari's plummeting fortunes made it necessary for the US to approach this crisis more even-handedly, he suggests.

"Instead of backing a horse or two, the US should back the stable: that is parliament," Mr. Gul continues. "I think they will do this country better by putting their bets on the Parliament rather than individuals."

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