“It is time to fulfil our promises,” said Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in a snap speech broadcast to the nation in the early hours of yesterday morning. After a week of tense build up in the confrontation between the Pakistan Government and a wide array of opposition groups, the Government’s back down was greeted by a collective sigh of relief by a country, already struggling with a stagnant economy and raging Taliban insurgency, bracing for violence and civil disobedience. The international community was also glad to see the dispute resolved. The business community too was pleased with the outcome — the Karachi Stock Exchange rallied yesterday morning in response to the welcome development.
The Obama Administration weighed into Pakistan’s political drama as well, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton admitting she told key Government and opposition leaders that they must resolve the crisis or risk vital funding from the US.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith welcomed news of the Chief Justice’s reinstatement and urged Pakistan’s politicians to work together to combat the “common enemy” of extremism. Smith spoke a day after an Australian soldier was killed along with eight Taliban fighters.
In hindsight the Long March reached a quick resolution only after grassroots and political activists found themselves in the rare situation of being supported by local and international centres of power.
There were scenes of jubilation throughout Pakistan’s following the decision on Monday. In the country’s major cities like Karachi and Lahore grown men danced the bangara in their black suits while drums blared and sweets were distributed.
“We are overjoyed,” said Faisal a lawyer from Lahore who was preparing to leave on the Long March to Islamabad.
“Last night we weren’t too sure what was going to happen so we held off from leaving for Islamabad until this morning. Then this announcement came [and] we’ve been celebrating all day.”
What a difference one night can make.
The nation’s capital Islamabad was in lock down last weekend. On Saturday morning the main arteries connecting the city to the rest of the Pakistan were lined with large cargo containers, cement barriers and earthen mounds. Constitution Avenue, the wide boulevard that is home to Pakistan’s parliament and the place protests from around the country hoped to converge, was eerily quiet. I was one of the last people allowed to visit Constitution Avenue before it was completely blocked by police. It was an appropriately symbolic moment.
But what was expected to be a storm after this calm never eventuated. Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry was reinstated as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by executive order effective from this Saturday. The incumbent Chief Justice, Hamid Dogar, who had been appointed by former President Pervez Musharraf after dismissing Chaudhry in November 2007, will now go into retirement.The Government also lifted its ban on protest has been lifted.
Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif drove back to his Lahore estate in a giant SUV, announcing that the Long March he had never actually started was over. Chaudhry also told the lawyers they could “go back now” and he would get back to work immediately.
“No democracy can survive without an independent judiciary,” Chaudhry said prophetically during a speech at the New York City Bar Association last November.
“There can be no democracy without law. Lack of justice produces inequalities.”
While Chief Justice Chaudhry built a reputation as an independent-minded judge with decisions that challenged the generally unaccountable nature of government business in Pakistan. That included deciding against a Musharraf Government decision to sell the national steel mills to a consortium linked to then Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz for markedly under the market value.
Most significantly, Chief Justice Chaudhry challenged the generals and their underwriters in the United States when he ordered the Government to explain the whereabouts of hundreds of missing persons believed kidnapped under the aegis of the so-called War on Terror.
Until this week, the expectation was that President Zardari would mount a violent crackdown on protesters, a course of action familiar to ordinary Pakistanis.
Under President Musharraf in November 2007, like President Zardari now, public assembly was outlawed using a draconian criminal code created by the British around 150 years ago. Under Musharraf the courts barred Zardari and the Sharifs from running for elected office much as the Supreme Court had barred the Sharif brothers under President Zardari.
From last Thursday, cable broadcasters stopped transmitting two major private television networks. The Government explained that the Geo and Aaj news channels were little more than mouthpieces for the opposition which were uncritically airing all manner of baseless allegations against the Government.
The decision to block Geo and Aaj was reversed a few days later, but not before Information Minister Sherry Rehman, herself a former newspaper editor, resigned in protest. She was soon followed by the Deputy Attorney-General Abdul Hai Gilani and a number of Punjab’s most senior police officers.
Today’s decision to reinstate Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as Chief Justice is one of a series of climb downs by Asif Ali Zardari, the man now known as “Mr 100%” — in the 1990s he was known as Mr 10% owing to his alleged embezzlement of government revenues while his wife Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister.
The past few days have been filled with rumours of his imminent demise — fueled in particular by reports that Western capitals had delivered an ultimatum to him via Pakistan’s Prime Minister and Army Chief. According to the ultimatum, he was to backtrack on his previous refusal to accept the reinstatement of the deposed Chief Justice, return the Sharif brothers to parliament and return control of the government to the Prime Minister.
Yesterday government officials announced that they would support a reinvestigation of the Supreme Court decision that removed Nawaz and Shabaz Sharif from parliament in February. Today it finally agreed to reinstate Chaudhry.
US envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan congratulated President Zardari for his statesmanship. It seems he has retained Washington’s support, for the time being at least.
“This has strengthened Zardari’s hand,” Mateen Haider from Pakistan’s Dawn News told me yesterday. By agreeing to Chaudhry’s reinstatement and paving the way for the rehabilitation of the Sharif brothers Zardari has saved his political career from what looked to be oblivion.
“[The decision to reinstate Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as Chief Justice] is in the best interests of stability in the country,” said Presidential spokesperson Farah Naz Isphani. In the end, it was in Zardari’s interests also.
It is true that Pakistan will remain plagued by crises well after today. But by demonstrating the importance of functioning and accountable institutions, the country’s lawyers may well have paved the road upon which the long road from its present hell may be charted.