Pakistan's long march
Protests against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf over his suspension of Pakistan's chief justice have reached a point of no return, writes Graham Usher in Islamabad
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Pakistani lawyers present a giant floral bouquet to suspended Chief Justice Chaudhry (centre) upon his arrival at Lahore High Court
"Nations and states that are based on dictatorship rather than the supremacy of the constitution, the rule of law and the protection of basic rights get destroyed," said Pakistan's chief justice, Iftikar Mohamed Chaudhry, on 6 May. He was speaking outside the High Court in Lahore, capital of Pakistan's wealthiest and most populous Punjab province, and before an audience of judges, lawyers, political activists and thousands upon thousands of ordinary Pakistanis.
Lahore was the latest in a series of rallies by Chaudhry protesting against his suspension on 9 March by Pakistan's President-General Pervez Musharraf, allegedly for misconduct, but almost certainly because the Justice had refused to grant legal sanction to a regime "based on dictatorship". It was also by far the most significant.
Chaudhry's long march to Lahore began 26 hours earlier in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. When it set out there were 30 cars in tow, decked in black flags. By the time it reached Lahore there were 2,000, plastered in every colour under the sun. Meanwhile Musharraf was addressing a public rally of his Pakistan Muslim League (PML) at Naukot in Sindh province. The difference between the two events tell you all you need to know about the current state of Pakistani politics.
Musharraf said there were "millions" at the PML gathering, representing a "true referendum" on his leadership. In fact there were several thousand, most of them PML party functionaries and/or public employees laid off work for the purpose. By contrast, Chaudhry's procession inched forward despite warnings from the government, arrests of hundreds of opposition party activists and a blackout of three private TV outlets broadcasting the entourage live. Tens of thousands lined the route.
The most emblematic moment came at Gujranwala, a town outside Lahore. The police told Chaudhry that his motorcade would have to go round the town. The motorcade swept through the police barrier like a tide through reeds.
The deeper question is: where is the tide heading? There is now a clear consensus in Pakistan that the "chief justice affair" is the gravest political crisis Musharraf has faced since he stole power in a coup in 1999. But there is no consensus as to how it can be resolved. Although the military government is tottering, it is not yet toppling, say analysts. And while there are exits, none are desirable for an army that covets political power. For now there seem to be four possible government responses to the crisis.
The first is for Musharraf to rescind the reference against Chaudhry. There are senior PML officials urging this, but they appear to be a minority. "One thing is clear; the government has no intention to withdraw the reference or patch up with the chief justice just to avert a crisis," Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, told a press conference in Islamabad on 6 May. Aziz is widely seen as the driving force behind the suspension, largely due to Chaudhry quashing the legality of his government's privatisation policies.
The second is to see through the crisis in the hope that it fizzles out in the summer heat. This, reportedly, is Musharraf's preference. It's not working. When the protests against the chief justice's suspension began in March, they consisted entirely of lawyers. They were then joined by the opposition parties, secular and Islamist alike. On the road to Lahore, the lawyers and the cadre were swelled with ordinary Pakistanis. This was its importance, says analyst Ahmed Rashid. "Lahore shows the protests are not going to fade away. The more Musharraf stalls, the greater the momentum against him."
The third option is the road often taken by the army in the past -- declare an emergency, impose martial law and crack down on all autonomous forms of political and civil society. This would almost certainly drive what have been largely peaceful protests into violent ones. It would also strain Musharraf's international relations, including Washington.
The Bush administration has been very indulgent with Pakistan's military government, if only to keep it on side in the "war on terror". But here too things are changing, says former speaker of the Pakistan parliament Syed Fakhar Imam. "Congress is now controlled by the Democrats. And sooner or later they will ask questions about democracy in Pakistan. We know Bush and Cheney will always support Musharraf. But they are now no more popular in their country than he is in his."
The fourth option is for Musharraf is reach some sort of accommodation with the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, generally seen as the most popular political force in the country. She has repeatedly signalled readiness to accept him as president if he is prepared to permit her return from exile, annul corruption charges against her and allow her a political role commensurate with her party's status. But her party has said the "deal" cannot happen as long as Musharraf remains army chief of staff. The protests led by Chaudhry, massively, say the same.
Will Musharraf yield power? It depends on the military, says Imam, who is also a PPP leader. "You never see the cracks in the Pakistan army until they appear. But the bigger the protests grow, the louder the murmurings and misgivings about Musharraf will become. The army won't let things come to a pass. It knows after seven and half years there is going to have to be a new set-up in Pakistan. The only question is whether it will be headed by Musharraf or someone else."