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(photo credit: AP [file])
Increasingly, the crisis plaguing Pakistan appears less about suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary and more as a referendum over President Pervez Musharraf's presidency, the development of democracy and the rule of law in Pakistan, as well as the military's role in Pakistani society. Especially as rumors swirl that martial law or emergency law may be imposed in Pakistan to deal with rising dissent.
The country is bracing itself for the forthcoming parliamentary elections (due this year) which will be followed by presidential elections next year. Parliamentary elections are significant because, under the Pakistani constitution, parliament chooses the president.
Musharraf suspended Chaudhary on March 9 and charged him with abuse of power. Chaudhary is to face a judicial commission composed of fourteen Supreme Court justices to investigate the allegation of misconduct. The charges relate to suggestions of impropriety because he may have enabled his son to join the police force despite having failed the English language exam. The other allegations relate to abuse of travel privileges.
Some claim, however, that the real reason behind Chaudhary's suspension was to remove a potential threat from the Supreme Court should Musharraf decide to retain his position as chief of the Army and run for president in 2008. Under Chaudhary, the court has been more active in questioning the role of the military in Pakistan. The military and the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) have imprisoned thousands of Pakistanis as part of the "war on terror" without due process, which Chaudhary increasingly challenged. He refused to accept the Interior Ministry's inaction over people gone missing and he demanded that the attorney general investigate the claims, leading to the return of some of the missing.
Chaudhary also drew criticism for a ruling that prevented the sale of the state-owned Steel Mills to a private consortium due to allegations that kickbacks were involved. Opponents claim that by removing Chaudhary from the bench, the ruling elite would guarantee a more pliable Supreme Court which would support the government rather than challenge it.
The demonstrations pose a major threat to Pakistan because it has united Pakistani liberals and secularists with pro-Taliban elements and the Islamists. The president of Muttahida Majlas-e-Amal (a body composed of six very religious parties) Qazi Hussain Ahmed went so far as to claim that Chaudhary's suspension threatens the independence of the judiciary. Ahmed declared "In order to please the West and the USA, the government has defaced and weakened the whole fabric of society, violated the constitution, took extra-constitutional steps and imposed virtually one man rule by setting up the National Security Council, making the parliament a rubber stamp and the cabinet powerless."
Opposition to the government is rising by the day with lawyers and the media feeling the pinch as the government attempts to stifle opposition. There are rumors that the chief justice of the Lahore High Court has taken action against judges who attended Chaudhary's speech at Lahore. The media has had it much tougher with an increase in the number of attacks on them. According to the Annual State of Pakistan Media Report (2006-2007) five lawyers have been killed and 17 were arrested or detained, while countless others have been wounded in pursuit of stories.
Pakistan is at a critical juncture in its development. The current crisis over Chaudhary's suspension is merely the latest in a long list of crises, raising concerns that Musharraf is losing control over the country, as he burns his bridges, leaving him and the rest of the country vulnerable to Islamic parties. Musharraf needs to ensure that he keeps up his reform program, which has encouraged the liberalization of the Pakistani economy (it has grown annually by around seven percent since 2000), and improvement of women's rights. He also needs to continue trying to tame the ubiquitous religious organizations (he has banned some militant Islamic groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, the Army of the Pure).
At the same time, Musharraf and Washington, which has provided the Pakistani president with unquestionable support since the beginning of the "war on terror," must realize that Pakistan can no longer accept a benign dictator. Strong-arm tactics assist those wanting to destroy the Pakistani state and therefore Musharraf and the military must adapt to a new reality in which the armed forces are subservient to the civilian bodies and not vice versa.
Dr. Isaac Kfir lectures on international relations at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.