Pakistan’s chief justice reinstated

March 16, 2009

Two years after Iftikhar Chaudhry was first sacked by then President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan government officials said he would be reinstated as Chief Justice after a nationwide protest led by Pakistan’s lawyers.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride. After he was removed by Musharraf, Chaudhry was reinstated only to be sacked again and placed under house arrest along with many other lawyers when the former general declared emergency rule in November 2007. At the time, Pakistani lawyer/politician Aitzaz Ahsan wrote in an editorial in the New York Times that the leaders of the lawyers movement ”will neither be silent nor still”. But he also fretted that the lawyers’ movement would be ignored by the United States and overlooked by the forthcoming election.

Then after an election which brought President Asif Ali Zardari to power, the lawyers protested again in June last year in what they called a “Long March” - named somewhat perversely after the military retreat led by Mao Zedung in the 1930s.  Their protest fizzled after failing to achieve its objective.  This time around, a “Long March” to Islamabad seems to have succeeded. 

“The quiet, patient man is on his third life, having been deposed twice previously by former President Pervez Musharraf.  Let’s hope he serves his term completely, without obstruction, and for the public good,” wrote Arif Rafiq on the Pakistan Policy Blog. “Kudos to the lawyers movement — one of Pakistan’s most organized, disciplined, and strategically-keen social movements.  Kudos to the political parties, third party groups, and street and Internet activists who stuck by their side.”

The lawyers’ movement was in some ways a triumph for civil society.  It sought to find its ideological roots in the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, himself a lawyer. And given that hardline Islamism tends to flourish in places where the rule of law has broken down, it can also say it has played its part in undercutting a growing Taliban insurgency.

But after teetering on the edge of a precipice over the lawyers protest, has Pakistan really reached a turning point, or simply righted itself temporarily?

Chaudhry himself was first appointed by Musharraf after the then-general launched a military coup in 1999, so he cannot say he has always been a loyal servant of civilian democracy. And as discussed in an earlier post, the deal to reinstate Chaudhry may have been achieved as a result of prodding from the Pakistan Army, which begs the question of how well civilian democracy can flourish in Pakistan if it has to be underwritten by the country’s powerful military.  His promised reinstatement — announced after days of negotiations — may also carry with it a political deal whose outcome and required allegiances we are yet to discover.

So is the government’s promise to reinstate Chaudhry a triumph for civil society? Or a false dawn, masking further problems ahead?

(Reuters photo: a lawyer tries to escape tear gas in Lahore)

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