Zardari to Reinstate Judges, Sharif Calls off Protest

Pakistan government’s decision to reinstate sacked supreme court justice Iftikhar Chaudhury came in for an immediate welcome on the streets and financial bourses with market indexes registering the highest gains in nearly nine months, but failed to enthuse analysts who say President Zardari’s days in office may be numbered.

“On March 21 when Abdul Hamid Dogar retires as the chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhury will become the chief justice of Pakistan,” prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said in a televised early morning address on Monday.

Correspondents say the decision to restore Chaudhury was taken at an early morning meeting between army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and President Asif Ali Zardari.

Former prime minister and leader of the Opposition PML(N), Nawaz Sharif, called off the ‘Long March’ to Islamabad in wake of the decision that many say may turn out to be yet another attempt by the ruling PPP to isolate Sharif.

Justice Chaudhury , one of the senior-most judges in Pakistan, was ousted from office by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf when he clamped emergency months before he was thrown out of office by a Sharif-Zardari coalition that later developed cracks over the reinstatement of sacked judicial officers.

While Sharif continued to push the PPP led government to reinstate sacked judges and bring treason charges against Musharraf, the Zardari led PPP chose to tow the middle path thus alienating the PML-N which later walked out of the alliance.

Zardari survived the jolt after several of Musharraf’s former allies bailed out his government, but the estrangement put Sharif back on the warpath, as he continued to push Zardari to restore the judges and fulfill one of the most popular election promises made by the PPP-PML(N) alliance.

In a shocking decision, the Pakistan supreme court recently upheld a verdict by a Lahore court barring Sharif and his brother and Shahbaz from contesting elections and holding constitutional offices due to corruption charges they faced.

The Zardari administration chose to add insult to injury and clamped gubernatorial rule in the Punjab province ruled by the PML(N) after Shahbaz Sharif was forced out of office by the SC ruling.

The Sharif brothers, however, refused to accept any judgment delivered by judges installed into office by Musharraf after he ousted Chaudhury and others during the brief emergency.

With huge support from lawyers and pro-democracy activists the PML(N) last week launched a 1,500 km “Long March” which was to reach the federal capital of Islamabad today.

Frustrated by the ongoing onslaught against his government, Zardari last week came down hard on the country’s media taking several television channels off air late on Friday.

Prominent amongst the channels taken off air was Geo TV, which was the first to establish links between 26/11 Mumbai attackers and Pakistan.

The decision to curtail freedom of expression only came in for greater criticism for Zardari and resulted in minister for information, Sherry Rehman, tendered her resignation to premier Gilani.

Zardari – widower of former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto – placed the Sharifs under house arrest on Sunday, but in a fitting tribute to democratic ethos Nawaz Sharif defied the orders and led the protesting marchers in Lahore later in the day.

Premier Gilani’s announcement to reinstall sacked judges touched off celebrations in various parts of the country as the declaration was immediately welcomed by a cross-section of Pakistanis.

The jubilation soon infected the country’s stock markets as the benchmark Karachi Stock Exchange 100 Index had already gained 5.4 percent by late afternoon on Monday.

Zardari watchers, however, remain unmoved and say that the announcement to restore sacked judges may merely be an attempt to amputate the crucial support Sharif’s anti-government campaign has drawn from lawyers.

Caught between the Army and warring PML(N) on one side and his own political aspirations on the other, Zardari’s moves over the next few days are crucial, as analysts say the clock is already ticking on his government and Islamic Pakistan may well be on its way to yet again remove the flimsy veil it calls democracy.

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