Musharraf critic back on job
Supreme Court decision to reinstate chief justice and drop charges deals blow to Pakistan's president
Olivia Ward: July 21, 2007: Toronto Star
Pakistan's national drama – the Strongman versus the Supreme Court Judge – took an unexpected turn yesterday as the country's highest court reinstated Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, ending President Pervez Musharraf's attempt to oust a potentially troublesome critic.
Dozens of lawyers took to the streets of Islamabad chanting "Go, Musharraf go," a sign that the military ruler's political shelf life is a tick closer to expiring.
Earlier, Supreme Court judges ruled that the popular Chaudhry should be reinstated and threw out government accusations that he had misused his office for personal gain. In March, Chaudhry was suspended on Musharraf's order.
The court's decision surprised and heartened many Pakistanis, who were expecting a weaker response from a body that is often under pressure from politicians and the military.
It also delivered their first good news in weeks of politically and religiously-inspired violence that followed Chaudhry's ouster and the government's siege of a mosque complex that had become a centre of extremism.
Since last week's siege, in which dozens of people died, at least 180 others were blown up in retaliatory bombings that targeted a soldiers' mosque, a police academy, and a convoy of Chinese engineers.
In May, more than 40 people died in Karachi when a rally awaiting Chaudhry was attacked by followers of a local pro-Musharraf party. The accumulated violence has shaken the country, and cast a pall over the president's chances of re-election this year.
"Today, you can see the jubilation in Pakistan," said Hassan Abbas, a fellow of the Belfer Center at Harvard University. "For the first time a court decision openly challenged a military dictator. The people of Pakistan are the winners."
But the ruling also set the scene for a new drama, pitting a weakened Musharraf against a newly-muscular judicial champion whose image has burned increasingly bright.
During the past two years, Chaudhry has opposed the government on issues ranging from privatization to human rights and the environment. He is widely seen as an impediment to Musharraf's re-election plans.
"I would like to see this as a victory for the lawyers and the bar associations of Pakistan," says Daniel Markey, a senior fellow for South Asia at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. "If it becomes a victory of one individual, Chaudhry, over another, Musharraf, there could be an unfortunate unravelling."
But, says Kamran Bokhari, Toronto-based director of Middle East analysis for Strategic Forecasting Inc., there's little doubt that the court decision was a body blow for the beleaguered military ruler – if not a potential knockout punch.
The court is now "supercharged" and ready to take on the president, Bokhari said.
"If he makes any wrong moves – in the way he tries to get re-elected, or by staying in uniform when he said he'd step down as military chief – it could end up as a case in court. It limits his options.
"He was boxed in before, but the box just got smaller."
Gen. Musharraf came to power in a bloodless coup eight years ago, promising stability and progress. But the rise of militant Islamists, whom he has been accused of cultivating, has led to a spiral of violence. The spread of the Taliban along the lawless border with Afghanistan and accusations from the West that he has failed to control them has boosted the pressure on Musharraf.
If elections held by the end of this year are free and fair, Musharraf is unlikely to hang onto power, critics say.
The moderates who once supported him have been angered by his failure to strip off his military uniform, breaking a pledge to become a civilian by 2005. They also resent Musharraf's expansion of the role of president, once a mainly ceremonial office.
A battle is shaping up over his intention to be re-elected – by an electoral college made up of both houses of parliament and provincial assemblies – before a new parliamentary poll is held to reconfigure the political landscape.
With Chaudhry back on the bench, the court is signalling that it will take a hand in those decisions.
"Musharraf's ability to manipulate the political system is certainly diminished," says Abbas, a former Pakistani government official. "In these trying times when Pakistan is struggling with extremism on one side, and military dictatorship on the other, Chaudhry can define the parameters. He will be one of the most important persons on the scene from now on."
But as Pakistanis desperately seek solace for disorder and injustice, the crusading judge and his court may see the downside of public expectations.
"In the coming weeks and months, people will look to the court to resolve all the crises of Pakistan," says Abbas. "The judges are feeling empowered. But that may be beyond them."