Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Why is the current Pakistani government stalling on the reinstatement of judges? The failure to resolve this critical issue is destabilizing the fragile democracy. The Pakistan Muslim League, led by Nawaz Sharif, has withdrawn its support from the ruling coalition government. This leaves the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to hold onto power with the support of smaller parties.

Following the resignation last week of President Pervez Musharraf, there were hopes that an independent judiciary would be restored. Mr. Musharraf, who assumed power in a 1999 military coup, was under pressure to restore civilian rule; he drew most ire for firing Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry in 2007 and 60 judges whom he believed threatened the legitimacy of his rule. The coalition partners who came to power in February threatened Mr. Musharraf with impeachment for failing to uphold the constitution; he thus resigned amid renewed calls for the restoration of Pakistani democracy. Yet, the PPP has failed to live up to its promise to restore the judges - and has now lost a key member of the coalition.

The PPP is headed by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the late Benazir Bhutto. He has been reluctant to reinstate Mr. Chaudry because he once refused to grant him bail when he was in jail on corruption charges - charges that could very well be reinstated if the judges are restored. Yet, without an independent judiciary, Pakistan risks sliding into unconstitutional rule once again, with all the impending chaos this might trigger.

The United States has provided billions of dollars in aid to assist Pakistan - especially to strengthen the government which is needed to combat Taliban strongholds in the border regions with Afghanistan. Pakistan is the world’s second-largest Muslim nation with a population of 167 million. It is also the world’s only nuclear-armed Islamic nation. With the collapse of Mr. Musharraf’s rule, the only option for America has been to hope that a more democratic government would have a better chance of defeating terrorism. These hopes are not bolstered by the news of a crumbling coalition only days after the Musharraf resignation.

Mr. Zardari has appealed to Mr. Sharif to return to the government. If Mr. Zardari wants a reliable coalition partner and the continued support of the United States, he must demonstrate that he is a man of his word and one who will do all he can to guide Pakistan toward the establishment of full democracy - one that is supported by an independent judiciary.

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