Only weeks after capitulating to Taliban-style forces in Swat by negotiating a ceasefire in return for the introduction of Sharia courts, President Zardari (widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto) appears to have capitulated to a very different political movement. As thousands of protesters participated in the “Long March” to demand the restoration of the deposed Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry, the police barricades began to be removed and government spokespeople announced concessions.
Chaudhry was removed as Chief Justice by former President Musharraf because of fears he would overturn the amnesty that had allowed corruption charges to be dropped against Bhutto and Zardari as part of a power-sharing deal. Zardari was elected on the promise to reinstate Chaudhry, but once in office, he apparently shared Musharraf’s trepidation about the political risks of an overly independent judiciary.
The Zardari government has spent the past few weeks replicating the scenes that marked the last phase of Musharraf’s reign — police crackdowns on the lawyer’s demonstrations, attempts to silence the media, rival leaders placed under house arrest. Pakistan’s elected leaders have a habit of descending into the kind of authoritarianism that makes it hard to be too upset when the military takes over — yet again.
The situation appears to have calmed, for the moment. Chaudhry is apparently to be reinstated, and the government has announced it will appeal against a recent court decision to exclude opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother from political office because of their own history of corruption.
Sharif himself was a highly authoritarian Prime Minister, who attempted to impose control upon the media and on trouble political and social activists. But these days, he is positioning himself as the democrat, calling the Pakistani people to “revolution”. And he is looking like the man of the moment, drawing huge crowds and tapping into the momentum of the lawyers movement.
I visited Sharif’s wife and daughter back in 2000 while he was in prison after his removal from office. His daughter said sourly, “While we were in power, these people would follow us, telling us ‘We are your cats and your dogs’. Now, we can’t get our own shadow to follow us.”
It’s hard to see Sharif as a hero for democracy. But he is too important a figure to exclude from the political process. His shadow has returned to him, along with the many Pakistanis who hope against hope for a half-way functioning government at a time when their country is facing crises on so many different fronts.