A Late Victory for Justice
The Pakistan government could hardly have backed down more dramatically. Early on Monday morning (16 March) Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani made a televised announcement that Islamabad would be reinstating Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the other deposed judges in their offices.
This move has certainly deescalated the crisis raging on Pakistan’s domestic front since February's elections, but it is far from solved.
The decision is a triumph for Pakistan’s civil society. The country's democratic forces see Chaudhry as a symbol of resistance against General Pervez Musharraf's military rule since 1999, which only came to a peaceful end in 2008.
Historic victory for democratic forces
For the thousands of Pakistani lawyers too, who have been taking to the streets to demand an independent justice system for months, the end of the power struggle with the president is a historic victory. For them, the return to democracy was not complete and thus inconceivable without the chief justice who defied Musharraf and defended the constitution.
If President Zardari is the loser in this power struggle, the clear winner is the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. It was Sharif who torpedoed a collation with Bhutto family's Pakistan People’s Party when Benazir's widower refused to reinstate Chaudhry.
Sharif, repeatedly harassed by the Islamabad government in recent months and even placed under house arrest last Sunday, has emerged from this crisis significantly stronger.
Sharif wins on points
Nawaz Sharif, the chairman of the largest opposition party PML-N, demonstrated his newly found authority by calling off further protests – including a "long march" of the opposition from all corners of the country to Islamabad.
The question arises as to why on earth Zardari allowed the issue to escalate into a power struggle, only to lose so miserably. One thing is for sure – he seriously misgauged the situation.
Without a doubt, he started out in office after his major election victory in February 2008 blinkered by his large parliamentary majority, believing he could entice Sharif into the new democratic government and integrate him.
But he underestimated the anger of those who want to further reinforce Pakistan’s civil society, seeing a return to democracy as a mere first step on the ladder to strengthening institutions such as the judiciary.
In recent months, Zardari's party and the president himself have increasingly felt the sting of this pressure, above all in the most populous province of Punjab.
And there are a number of voices seeking explanations for the president's attitude in his past: Zardari was indicted for corruption in the 1990s.
"Mr ten percent"
During his wife's time in office as prime minister he was lampooned as "Mr ten percent". He has always denied the charges, yet the suspicions remained. The chief justice, it was thought, would reopen the case if he ever returned to office. Chaudhry has yet to respond to these expectations.
The most important reason for the sudden turnaround, however, is likely to come from Washington. The Obama administration and US Congress, which decides on billions of dollars of aid for Pakistan, are extremely concerned over the domestic situation in the nuclear power state.
Washington expects to see tough action against the insurgent Taliban fighters in the Northwest of Pakistan, the US has proclaimed. A series of delegates from the Obama administration and other Western governments have made it clear to Zardari in the past months that the fight against the Islamists in the Northwest must take clear priority.
Pyrrhic victory on the horizon
In the light of the situation, the West has no sympathy for domestic disputes with the country’s democratic forces, was the clear message.
The people of Pakistan are now celebrating their victory. But it could turn out to be of the Pyrrhic kind. The democratically elected president Zardari has been made to look a fool and politically weakened, but he still has a large majority in parliament and will hold on to power for some time to come.
So a lot now hangs in the balance as to whether Nawaz Sharif, the great domestic victor, will now join the Zardari government for the sake of national unity – or work towards destabilising his opponent Zardari even more. The former would be desirable, yet the latter looks more likely.
© Deutsche Welle 2009
Grahame Lucas is head of Deutsche Welle's South Asia Service.