Foreshadowing the turbulent road ahead to Pakistan's presidential elections, on Friday the government dismissed the outspoken chief justice of the Supreme Court. Analysts say the move is just one of several that amplify President Pervez Musharraf's calculated bid to cling to power.
Amid national outcry, Pakistan's government quickly defended the dismissal, the first time a member of the Supreme Court has effectively been removed under the Constitution.
"The action against the [chief justice] is in line with the law and Constitution, and such action would be taken on complaints against any entity," Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukut Aziz told local media Saturday.
But critics say that silencing Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry, seen as a potential obstacle to the legality of Mr. Musharraf's reelection bid, has cast further doubt that the elections scheduled between September and November will be free and fair. His removal, they add, also highlights a period of crisis for Musharraf: With elections on the horizon and his political base eroded, he is turning to heavy-handed tactics to secure victory at the polls..
"This is part of the larger plan for Musharraf to take control of all institutions and dominate whatever political process is left," says S. Akbar Zaidi, an independent social scientist in Karachi.
Justice Chaudhry's dismissal unleashed a frenzy from the press and a revolt from lawyers across the country, who called for a nationwide strike on Monday.
Since Musharraf appointed him in 2005, Chaudhry has made a name for himself by doing precisely what the administration has wanted least: He aired its dirty laundry and issued judgments seeking rectification. Last year he blocked a government bid to sell the majority of the state-owned Pakistan Steel Mills to a private consortium, a blow that proved a rare and embarrassing check on the administration.
Following public outcry in January, Chaudhry also compelled the government to trace the whereabouts of terrorism suspects, many of whom had been allegedly jailed without evidence and prevented from contacting their families. When results were not produced fast enough, Chaudhry chastised a government lawyer and expressed disappointment with the administration's efforts, a spat the media seized upon.
Some observers speculate that, given Chaudhry's antagonistic strain, the president's office may have feared that he would block the legality of Musharraf's reelection bid. On Friday, he was asked to step down from his post, pending an investigation into charges of judicial misconduct.
"Chaudhry has shown more independence than the government thought," says Sen. Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the opposition Pakistan People's Party. "Probably the government would be suspicious that Chaudhry would not toe the government line."
There is no doubt that Musharraf, as both president and the chief of army staff, still holds the real power. But years of military rule and increasing isolation have frayed his shroud of legitimacy and his pro-Western economic and political policies have undercut his political base and popular support.
"Unlike [former military rulers] Ayub Khan and Zia ul-Haq, who created a large domestic constituency, Musharraf has never been able to create a constituency. His survival has been dependent on external support," says Kaiser Bengali, a political analyst in Karachi.
As a result, he's driven to extra- constitutional gambits to maintain his legitimacy, analysts say. In 2000, while the Constitution was suspended, he removed 18 judges from the bench, including another chief justice, when they failed to take oaths legitimizing his coup.
More recently, he's indicated that he may run for reelection while still in uniform. But that would violate a Constitutional amendment he passed in 2004, which allows him to hold both the offices of president and army chief of staff only until his current presidential term expires in 2007.
"Previous rulers have tried to at least live by the ... spirit of the law," says Mr. Bengali.
Chaudhry may have found fault with this and other recent controversies if they were ever brought before the Supreme Court, suggesting why Musharraf may have sought to silence him, according to analysts.
Among such legal disputes is Musharraf's departure from standard parliamentary procedure for the upcoming elections.
In a normal Parliamentary system, the national and provincial assemblies first dissolve, hold new elections, and then, when newly constituted, elect a president as an electoral college. But in February, the government announced that the president will be elected by the current national and provincial assemblies before their terms expire in November.
To justify his departure from normal procedure, Musharraf cites a Constitutional amendment he passed in 2002 that changes the election dates. The government insists that, in holding presidential elections first, it is simply following the letter of the new law.
But critics say it's a blatant manipulation. The current assemblies are so stacked in Musharraf's favor, they claim, that he is certain to be reelected. If new Parliamentary elections were held first, they might bring in a bloc of opposition.
"From the points of view of both the sitting assemblies and his uniform, [Musharraf] knows these things will eventually land in the courts," says Senator Babar.
Yet government officials deny that Chaudhry was removed to prevent such a review.
"Pure speculation. There's no coincidence between the two," says Sen. Tariq Azim Khan, the state minister of information, adding that Chaudhry was "put in abeyance," according to Constitutional provisions, because the president filed an allegation of "judicial misconduct" against him last week.
The misconduct charges have not been made public, which Mr. Khan says is standard procedure until an official review is held by the Supreme Judicial Council, which even then may keep them undisclosed.