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Pakistan in Judicial Stalemate


Lawyers in Pakistan continue to press the government to reinstate the judges who were replaced last year by President Pervez Musharraf. After weeks of negotiations between coalition government leaders Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari over the issue, Zardari says that despite their differences, he is confident that the judges will be reinstated. What are the differences between the two leaders and their possible impact on the fragile two-month old government?

The leader of Pakistan's main ruling party, Asif Ali Zardari, says there is still disagreement between his Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on re-instating the judges. But he says he is confident that the two sides can resolve their differences. Sharif says the judges President Musharraf appointed last year should be replaced by the ones the President removed.

"The People's Party says, 'No, they should not go home; they should be retained.' And to bring these judges back who have been deposed, additional posts must be created in the court," says Sharif.

President Musharraf fired senior members of the country's judiciary after some judges questioned the legitimacy of his re-election. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif says Mr. Musharraf realized that as president he had no power to fire the Chief Justice, so he fired the judges in his capacity as the Army Chief.

"Now from where the Chief of Army staff derives these powers, I fail to understand. And who is the Chief of Army staff to oust the judges, to remove them, to put them under house arrest and then to bring about a provisional constitutional order? This is absolutely illegal, unconstitutional and immoral," says Sharif who adds that in order to advance civil society, Pakistan must have an independent judiciary.

"Just imagine what would happen to any Western civilized nation where the president or chief of army staff removes the judges like Mr. Musharraf has removed them here -- puts them under house arrest. How would the civil society react in that country? I think they will not rest unless and until they get rid of that president and restore the judges," says Sharif.

Political Divisions

A longtime observer of the Pakistani political scene, Walter Andersen of The Johns Hopkins University says he is not too concerned about what he calls "a temporary stalemate" between Zardari and Sharif. "There are some differences. I think it is normal," says Andersen. "What I am impressed by is the continuation of the dialogue."

Andersen says disagreement and negotiations are what democracy is all about. "Democracies are messy, always are messy," he says. "But what they involve is, they involve negotiations on important issues. And, in fact, this is an important issue that they are discussing."

Andersen says the difference between Zardari and Sharif is more on policy than their personalities, and he does not consider it a major threat to their alliance in the National Assembly. "This is the way democratic policy works. Even if Nawaz Sharif were to withdraw support from the government, which he has not done, the coalition has sufficient support to stay in power. But it will lose its two-thirds majority required for any constitutional amendments." Andersen says Zardari may be reluctant to replace the Musharraf-appointed judges because he benefited legally when they dropped corruption charges against him.

An Expatriate View

Azhar Khan is a lawyer of Pakistani origin who practices here in Washington. He, along with more than 100 other attorneys, has been active in gathering support for the reinstatement of Pakistan's judiciary. Khan says that Zardari may be reluctant to restore the judiciary because he might be concerned about his own court cases. "If Chief Justice Iftekhar Chowdhry becomes again Chief Justice, he is a very independent minded person and wants an independent judiciary, those charges may be reinstated against Asif Zardari," says Khan.

Washington, D.C. attorney, Asif Shah, who also has been working with Azhar Khan to reinstate the judiciary, says the crisis is serious and that the international community, especially the United States, should press for a peaceful resolution. "The U.S. has to think what its long-term interests are in Pakistan. If the U.S. puts enough pressure on the stakeholders, they can reach an agreement. But at the present time, the United States is staying away from this controversy and hoping that it will die down. But it may not die down," says Shah.

Evolving Democracy

According to Teresita Schaffer, who served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia during the late-1980s, Nawaz Sharif wants the judges to be reinstated before the upcoming by-elections because he is running for a parliamentary seat in Punjab Province. "I think he feels that this is a principled stand on which the people of Pakistan will back him up," says Schaffer. "I think he is probably right in that."

Schaffer, now a South Asia scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that although it seems Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif are basing their stands on personal interests, this often happens in a democracy. "The way leaders behave is a blend of what they think will be good for themselves and their parties, and what they think will be good for the country. And the genius of democracy is if you have enough competition in that sphere, then, more often than not, you can probably wind up pushing the national good ahead."

As for President Musharaff's silence on the issue, Schaffer says he has adopted a wait-and-see strategy. "He wants to remain the president. Secondly, he expects that the coalition will self-destruct and that he will be around to pick up the pieces. This is a strategy, if I am guessing correctly, that relies on patience."

Schaffer says the real question for Pakistan is whether the two main leaders of the new coalition -- Zardari and Sharif -- believe that they must stick together in order to ensure Pakistan's democratic future.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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