President Pervez Musharraf is obviously skating on thin ice, with Pakistan’s Supreme Court quashing his charges against suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar M Chaudhry and reinstating him. To recall: General Musharraf had summoned Mr Chaudhry to the army headquarters last March and asked him to resign. When the Chief Justice refused, the President suspended him, pending a judicial hearing on what turned out to be fabricated corruption charges, and for several days, had Mr Chaudhry placed under de facto house arrest. However, the General, being a pastmaster at turning things to his advantage, could well project this as an example of how well democracy has taken root in Pakistan.
Before this, the General was in the unenviable position of having to deal with demonstrations on the Chaudhry issue and rising anger at the Lal Masjid episode. When he appointed Mr Choudhry, General Musharraf must have expected him to kowtow to him. But, once in office, Mr Chaudhry apparently lost the President’s confidence. As the Chief Justice, he refused to toe the government’s line on several issues, including blocking a deal to privatise Pakistan Steel Mills for what critics said was a song. When it became clear that he was unlikely to rubberstamp the General’s planned ‘re-election’ to another term as President, the President resorted to strong-arm tactics. As it turned out, however, General Musharraf appears to have been taken completely unawares by the way Mr Chaudhry subsequently emerged as a rallying point for popular opposition to his regime. Now, it is that much more difficult for the General to continue in power as both President and Army Chief, even in the unlikely event that he stage-manages a parliamentary endorsement with the support of political parties.
That said, it is not implausible that the General may find a fall guy in someone like Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and talk his way out of this crisis. He could justify his continuing to double as President and head of the military by citing the need for a ‘unified command’ to combat ‘Talibanisation’. In fact, he has already amended the Constitution to increase the President’s powers, and to create a national security council, giving the military a permanent role in government.