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A Win for Democracy in Pakistan

Photo credits: New York Times

After reading over the weekend about a face-off between protesters and police in Lahore that escalated to the point that the police chose to withdraw, leaving the streets free to a massive pro-democracy rally, I was delighted this morning to visit the New York Times website and find, not news of further violence and crackdown, but the best possible outcome: success for the movement that has been demanding, for two years now, the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, removed by former president Pervez Musharraf when Chaudhry proved too independent and ruled against his authority.

The reinstatement of Chaudhry and other justices has been a chief goal of the opposition since the days when Musharraf was still in power, so I never understood why, a year after the opposition took control of the government, Chaudhry was still out of office. Apparently the new president, Asif Ali Zadari, feared his independence and the possibility that under his leadership, corruption charges against Zadari might be given a fresh look.

Yesterday’s events were notable for two reasons: Zadari, an elected civilian president, called the police into the streets to suppress a peaceful protest and arrest oppostion leaders, the sort of thing General Musharraf might have done; and the police ultimately refused to obey these orders, defying the central government and allowing the protests to continue. Led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, masses of people prepared to march on Islamabad, the capital, and demand Chaudhry’s return. After reading quotes like the ones below, I felt sure there would be further chaos and contention in an already unstable Pakistan.

Rana Asad, an activist lawyer, jailed for 30 days by Musharraf:

    The only difference is that Musharraf was a military dictator while Zardari is a civilian dictator.

Talat Masood, a political and military analyst:

    I think [Zadari] is really playing the role of Musharraf—in fact it’s much worse. He’s done it in a much shorter span of time than Musharraf.

Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, speaking to reporters yesterday from his car while on the way to Islamabad:

    This is a prelude to a revolution.

Instead, today there are scenes of jubilation at the news that Zadari has given in, returning Chaudhry to his position as Chief Justice. This is a victory for democracy for two reasons: not only has the constitutional authority of the Supreme Court finally been restored after Musharraf took power into his own hands; but Chaudhry has become a popular hero for holding powerful elites accountable before the law, and his restoration means that a popular movement has won out over those same elites. A woman celebrating in the crowd today explained it to the New York Times.

    “Justice is the solution to the common man’s problems,” Ms. Javed said, seated on a blue scarf on the grass…. “I want justice in schools, on roads, in transportation. Now the common man is speaking.”
    In the Arab world, the word is a constant companion. Islamic political movements use it in struggles against autocrats, arguing that justice is a central tenet of Islam.
    But in Pakistan, the political class comes from a powerful feudal elite, which has largely avoided policies that would bring greater social equality, like land reform. With only half of the population literate, so far the strategy has worked…. But the lawyers’ movement may be starting to change that….
    “This movement has given an awareness to the common people in Pakistan of their rights,” said Shamoon Azhar, 26, a doctoral student at the International Islamic University in Islamabad…. “It’s given people confidence. It’s shown people it can happen.”

Congratulations and best wishes today to the people of Pakistan.


Comment from Ashlee
Time: March 18, 2009, 19:50

The government may not have a hold on the idea of democracy but the lawyers do. Their ability to create change in their government is inspiring to me and hopefully it will inspire the common citizens Pakistan. The people spoke and the government listened–being heard is powerful and I think it will ignite voices that have never been used before!

I recently wrote a blog about this same story:

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