Islamabad: Pakistan’s government agreed on Monday to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry as chief justice to defuse a political crisis and end a street agitation that was threatening to turn into violent confrontation.
Chaudhry became a cause celebre after being dismissed in late 2007 by then-president and army chief General Pervez Musharraf.
“I announce the restoration of all deposed judges including Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry according to a promise made by the president of Pakistan and myself,” Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said in a televised address to the nation.
Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif had thrown his support behind the protest campaign by anti-government lawyers that had threatened to bring turmoil to Pakistan as the government struggles to stem militancy and to revive a flagging economy.
After the prime minister’s announcement, Sharif called off a “Long March” protest that had been making its way to the capital Islamabad.
President Asif Ali Zardari, who was elected by parliament six months ago, had feared Chaudhry could wage a vendetta against Musharraf that could also threaten his own position.
Although he has a healthy majority in parliament, Zardari’s retreat on the issue will raise questions about his future, while it will enhance the standing of his chief rival, former prime minister Sharif.
Chaudhry will be reinstated on 21 March when the incumbent retires. Earlier a government official told Reuters that along with Chaudhry’s reinstatement “there will also be a constitutional package.”
Several hundred jubilant lawyers and activists gathered outside Chaudhry’s Islamabad residence, which he refused to vacate after his dismissal when Musharraf declared emergency rule in a desperate move to extend his presidency for another term.
They danced and chanted “Long live the chief justice”.
“It’s victory for those who fought for independence of (the) judiciary and it’s the first time in the history of Pakistan that a movement launched by the middle class has proved successful,” said retired judge Tariq Mehmud, a leader of the lawyers’ campaign.
The political crisis gripping the Muslim nation had alarmed the United States and Britain, which fear any slide into chaos would help the Taliban and al Qaeda become stronger in Pakistan.
Western diplomats had tried to make Zardari pull out of a collision that could destabilise the year-old civilian coalition and force a reluctant army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, to intervene.
Sharif, a two-time prime minister with a conservative, religious nationalist support base, had backed a lawyers’ movement fighting for the independence of the judiciary.
His government was overthrown by Musharraf in 1999, and since his return from exile in late 2007 he has become Pakistan’s most popular politician, thanks partly to his stand over the judge.
Zardari, widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was elected by parliament last September after forcing Musharraf to quit the presidency.
Deeply unpopular, Zardari’s image was further damaged when he broke a public promise to Sharif last year to reappoint Chaudhry, though he reappointed most other judges axed by Musharraf.
Zardari finally conceded over Chaudhry as Sharif and the lawyers held a day of protest in Lahore on Sunday, and set off for Islamabad for the climax of a series of protests they had dubbed “the Long March”.
To stop them driving into Islamabad, authorities had positioned containers and trucks across roads outside the capital.
The government had been offering concessions earlier, but Sharif refused to accept anything less than Chaudhry’s restoration.
Sharif latched onto Chaudhry’s cause two years ago, but the current crisis began when Zardari ejected the PML-N from power in Punjab last month, after the Supreme Court barred Sharif and his younger brother Shahbaz from holding elected office.
Gilani reached out to the Sharifs in his address.
“Let’s move ahead together with other political powers for the implementation of the constitution and the charter of democracy,” he said, referring to a document Bhutto and Sharif had signed while living in exile during the Musharraf years.
The constitutional package being worked out was expected to include the formation of a commission to review judicial appointments and the lifting of central government rule in Punjab, setting the stage for the provincial assembly to elect a chief minister.
Some analysts saw Chaudhry’s comeback adding to Pakistan’s complexities.
“The reinstatement of Chaudhry as chief justice will further complicate politics in Pakistan,” said Brian Cloughley, a British defence analyst familiar with Pakistan. “Nobody knows what his allegiance is, in terms of Pakistan’s Constitution.”