The restoration of Pakistan’s sacked chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, marks a first in that nation’s history. Long accustomed to an unaccountable political executive, ordinary citizens secured what seemed to be almost unthinkable until the other day.
In a sense, justice Chaudhry has been at the centre of contemporary events in Pakistan. His sacking in 2007 by the then military ruler of the country, Pervez Musharraf, set into motion events that ultimately led to the dictator’s ouster from power. After Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007, a key part of the political understanding between former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, was the restoration of judges sacked by Musharraf. This understanding unravelled after President Zardari refused to restore the former chief justice to his office.
Zardari came close to meeting the fate of his predecessor. As in Musharraf’s case, a chain of events led to the developments on Monday. In the last few months, the rift between the President and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had become almost unbridgeable. The perception that Gilani was close to the army chief grew by the day, as did Zardari’s isolation. It was under these circumstances that Sharif, the shrewd political operator that he is, hitched his fortunes to a revived lawyers movement for the restoration of Chaudhry.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The rest is history: The combined intervention of the army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and the less than gentle prodding on the part of the US, ensured a 2am broadcast by Gilani on Monday announcing the restoration of the former chief justice. Gilani also ordered the release of lawyers and citizens arrested on political grounds.
Will Chaudhry’s return enhance democratic consolidation in Pakistan? Will it help tame an otherwise hard to handle army? These are difficult questions to answer, for Pakistan is not a “normal” country. Decades of institutionalization of military rule are hard to undo, however powerful the undercurrents in that direction may be. The army steps in when political squabbling gets out of hand. Sharif’s “long march” to Islamabad had the potential to hand the levers of political control to the generals once again.
Then there is the question of returns from democracy. In Pakistan, the democratic election of leaders is one thing, but the results of their rule an entirely different matter. Disappointments from the process have a powerful legitimizing impact on military rule. The politicians have never learnt that lesson. Unless that lesson is learnt, Pakistan’s judges may be condemned to use the Doctrine of Necessity® every time a general takes over in Islamabad.
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