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Protests Mount over Suspension of Pakistan's Chief Justice


Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's suspension of the nation's chief justice has sparked several months of street protests in Pakistan. The outcry against General Musharraf is the strongest public challenge to his presidency since he took power in a bloodless coup eight years ago. It also comes as Pakistan prepares for legislative elections. As VOA's Robert Raffaele explains, the future of Musharraf's regime is now in question.

Thousands of protesters demonstrated again Thursday in Lahore, Pakistan in support of the nation's chief justice of the Supreme Court. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf suspended Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in March amid allegations of misconduct.

The suspension has fueled months of street protests, with lawyers and opposition activists who oppose General Musharraf demanding his resignation.

The government has responded by cracking down on lawyers, opposition parties and the media.

During a recent forum about Pakistan's future (Monday, June 18th) in Washington at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, several speakers said General Musharraf must begin accommodating opposing voices to prevent further chaos.

Professor Hasan-Askari Rizvi of Johns Hopkins University said even if General Musharraf does not survive the political crisis, a more democratic Pakistan can emerge only if the nation's military-civilian leadership agrees to a change in the balance of power. "At the moment, the balance is decisively tilted in favor of the military commanders," he said, "and this would mean that military commanders would have to step back and the civilian leaders would have to realize that in the initial stages they will have to work with them on security and foreign policy matters."

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a research group in Washington, D.C. Curtis says even if a new administration takes power, Pakistan's relations with its neighbors will not change dramatically, including its peace talks with India. "I think both the Indian and Pakistani publics support these talks, so I think there would be a lot of momentum for continuing those talks. And with regard to the relationship with China, Pakistan has always had a special relationship with China. I think that would continue."

The United States has praised General Musharraf repeatedly, calling him an ally in the war on terror. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte met with the Pakistani president and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz last week. Negroponte offered them U.S. support, but he also urged them to ensure that forthcoming elections are free and fair.

Professor Rizvi says many Pakistanis resent Washington’s unwavering support of General Musharraf. "The U.S. government has to acknowledge -- in its support of the [Pakistani] government -- that there are serious concerns expressed in Pakistan's political circles and the government of Pakistan needs to address those concerns."

Lisa Curtis agrees that the U.S. must privately press General Musharraf to work toward bringing civilian democratic rule to Pakistan. She says if he refuses to do so, prolonged unrest may force his army to insist that he step down, and result in a new leader who is not friendly toward Washington.

She says General Musharraf can still determine whether Pakistan moves closer toward democracy, or more violence. "If Musharraf develops an approach where he takes all the parties into (his) confidence, he acknowledges the changing scenario that is happening, and the increased demands for a return to democratic civilian rule. If he can somehow spearhead that effort, that transition to democracy, then I think we are looking at a much more peaceful, more predictable transition, and you would be more likely to see a leader who is democratic, more secular in his outlook, and has the same pro-U.S. views that Musharraf does."

General Musharraf, however, appears unwilling to give up his presidency without a struggle. Under Pakistan's constitution, parliament elects the president.

General Musharraf has drawn criticism for suggesting he would seek re-election from the current parliament, which endorsed him in 2002.

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