Benazir Bhutto was, in the eyes of many, the last national figure capable of doing this. Perhaps that is why she was killed.
Courtesy: The Guardian, Tuesday 17 March 2009
Back from the brink
The latest nail-biting crisis in Pakistan ended yesterday with jubilant scenes on the streets of Islamabad and sighs of relief in Washington and London. Just as protesters were about to descend on the capital in their thousands, President Asif Zardari backed down by agreeing to reinstate the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. And Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the opposition, called off a sit-in outside parliament which would have ended in the overthrow of the government.
It was a clear retreat by Mr Zardari, who had started to copy the very worst aspects of the military ruler he had deposed. He had ejected opposition politicians from office, ordered mass arrests and a media clampdown. In a way, he had no choice but to back down. Policemen melted away in front of the swelling ranks of black-suited lawyers, a sign the government was losing executive control. The victor of this conflict, Mr Sharif, also stepped back from the brink by agreeing to the way the chief justice will be reinstated. Mr Chaudhry will only go back to work on 21 March, when the incumbent retires. Mr Sharif thus abandoned his demand to restore the legal state of affairs in the supreme court to 2 November 2007 – the day before the state of emergency imposed by General Pervez Musharraf when Mr Chaudhry was sacked and put under house arrest. If the legal and constitutional clock had been put back 16 months, everything that the supreme court had done would have been declared null and void. Before he was removed, Mr Chaudry was about to examine an amnesty Gen Musharraf used to entice the late Benazir Bhutto and her husband Mr Zardari back from exile. This was an amnesty against all outstanding charges against the couple. It was the fear of losing this protection that prompted Ms Bhutto to resist the method of restoring the chief justice which Mr Sharif had proposed.
All this may seem arcane and bizarre, as the goths stand at the gates of the nuclear-armed state. Mightier foes threaten Pakistan’s nascent democratic order. But it is neither arcane nor bizarre in a culture where assassination, ambition and amnesty are part of the same political coinage. Mr Zardari enjoys immunity from prosecution as president, so it is not known how vulnerable he would be if Mr Chaudhry restarted his vendetta against Mr Musharraf, who is now peacefully retired. The move to reinstate the chief justice by appointing him as a successor to the incumbent whom he regards as illegal avoids (at least initially) the chaos that would ensue if Mr Sharif had stuck to his guns.
The agreement to restore the chief justice was the second conciliatory move Mr Zardari made in an action-packed weekend. On Saturday Mr Zardari started to undo another rash move – the ejection of Mr Sharif’s party from power in the Punjab. The government said it would seek a review of the supreme court ruling, barring Mr Sharif and his brother Shahbaz from holding elected office.
This is only a ceasefire. The protagonists could easily return to war. An optimist would say that Mr Zardari might learn from mistakes which nearly spelled the end of his short term of office. And it could be that Mr Zardari will now cede day-to-day control to more capable political hands like those of his prime minister. Mr Sharif remains the most popular politician in the country, but he too would also be unwise to push for early elections. His party controls Punjab, the most populous and powerful state, but it still falls far short of being a national party. If the stability of the country is more important than his political ambitions, Mr Sharif should content himself with trying to work with a chastened president. Pakistan needs a political leader who can unite the country. Benazir Bhutto was, in the eyes of many, the last national figure capable of doing this. Perhaps that is why she was killed.