The abrupt removal of Pakistan's chief justice has sparked a political firestorm around President Pervez Musharraf. Critics charge the president's decision to remove the judge was politically motivated. As VOA Correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the opposition, which has been sidelined during General Musharraf's rule, sees some political opportunity in the crisis during an election year.
Analysts say President Musharraf's suspension of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry has presented the Pakistani leader with his biggest political challenge since he took power in a military coup in 1999.
Husain Haqqani, who has been an advisor to two former Pakistani prime ministers, says the president's recent actions have reawakened a sleepy political opposition that had largely been sidelined during President Musharraf's rule - and done so in an election year.
"What he did not realize was that, after seven years in power, the honeymoon is over," said Husain Haqqani. "There are many, many, many causes of resentment, and this has become the lightening rod for those many causes of resentment."
Chief Justice Chaudhry was suspended from office March 9 for alleged abuse of authority.
Critics claim the suspension was because he questioned the reach of the government's authority, especially with regard to arbitrary detention by the intelligence service.
The government denies any political motivation, but has not made public the charges against Justice Chaudhry.
The removal sparked demonstrations, and police detained hundreds of protesting lawyers and opposition activists.
Seven judges and a deputy attorney general have resigned in protest. A police raid on GEO-TV, an independent television station, sparked further outrage in the streets.
In a lengthy interview with GEO-TV late Monday, President Musharraf said the situation may have been mishandled, but he defended Chief Justice Chaudhry's suspension. He pledged to hold what he called fair and transparent parliamentary elections later this year as scheduled, and denied that he would use the army to impose a state of emergency.
"Elections will be held on time. This is my assurance to the nation. [State of] emergency: the army will never be used. This is not their job," said President Musharraf.
"We need to protect ourselves from any negative fallout. Inshallah [as God wills], we will protect ourselves, we will go forward on the course, which is elections this year, when the five-year tenure of the assemblies is completed. I am firmly resolved to do that, and I will do it," he continued.
President Musharraf's term is also up, and he is expected to seek another term from the outgoing parliament and provincial assemblies, which together form an electoral college to choose the president.
Director James Dobbins, of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, believes the president can ride out the current storm, but adds the clamor for a return to civilian rule will not go away.
"I think, at this stage, one would say it is likely that he will be able to weather it," he said. "The question is whether he draws the right conclusions and begins to move back to the resumption of civilian rule and the strengthening of the rule of law in his country."
Waiting in the wings to see how the crisis develops in this election year are two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Both live in exile, and face arrest on corruption charges if they return to Pakistan.
The Supreme Judicial Council was to hear Justice Chaudhry's case Tuesday, but the hearing has been moved to early next month. The Council, which hears complaints of misconduct by high-ranking judges, could confirm his removal or throw out the charges and reinstate him.
Analysts say Justice Chaudhry's reinstatement would politically weaken President Musharraf, embolden the opposition and strengthen the independence of the judiciary.