- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

UPDATED:

LAHORE, Pakistan

Opposition leaders and lawyers’ groups Monday celebrated the government’s decision to reinstate the country’s chief justice, after a standoff that appeared to weaken President Asif Ali Zardari.

“This is a victory for the country’s people,” said Imran Khan, a veteran politician and a former cricket star.

Mr. Khan spoke hours after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced that Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and other judges removed by former President Pervez Musharraf will be reinstated March 21.

“The Pakistani people forced the leadership to take this decision,” Mr. Khan said.

Fireworks were set off all across the country, and sweets were distributed on the streets. The celebration, however, was marred later Monday, when a suspected suicide bomber killed at least nine people at a bus terminal in Rawalpindi, just outside the capital, Islamabad.

The decision to reinstate Mr. Chaudhry came as anti-government demonstrators led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif descended on the capital.

Mr. Sharif later called off the “long march” protest, Reuters news agency reported.

“From here, God willing, the fate of this nation will change,” Mr. Sharif said, speaking from inside his jeep in Gujranwala as supporters mobbed it. “From here, a journey of development will start. From here, a revolution will come,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.

The protests were triggered by a Supreme Court decision last month that barred Mr. Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, from holding public office.

Mr. Sharif has long demanded Mr. Chaudhry’s reinstatement to the Supreme Court. Mr. Zardari has been reluctant, worried that Mr. Chaudhry would overturn a deal that dropped corruption charges against the president.

As the wave of protesters headed for the capital, clashing with police along the way, the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and other officials persuaded Mr. Zardari to make the concession.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the decision “brought Pakistan back from the brink.”

Many political analysts said it has left Mr. Zardari weakened.

“His moral standing is down, his popularity is down, and his prestige is down. He completely failed to understand the pulse of the nation and the public consensus. In the end it became one man against the country, which is never a good equation to have,” said analyst Rasool Baksh Raees.

Mr. Zardari had refused to restore Mr. Chaudhry and several other judges despite an earlier pledge to do so. The president then sought to block the protest in Islamabad.

“The restoration will once again make people believe in the power of democracy, but the army chief’s role as mediator between the government and the opposition will increase Zardari’s dependence on the army,” analyst Tauseef Ahmed Khan said. “The confrontation has weakened Zardari, improved Nawaz Sharif’s popularity and made him far stronger.”

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