By Raja Asghar
Restoring to parliament its lost power is likely to be the next focus of political forces, whose differences over a two-year-old judicial crisis finally took the matter to the streets.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced early on Monday the restoration of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and several other justices sacked by former president Pervez Musharraf rather than face the challenge of a lawyer-led ‘long march’, backed by several opposition parties, reaching Islamabad for an indefinite ‘dharna’, or sit-in.
But a formal notification he promised in the pre-dawn broadcast had not been issued until late in the evening, although law ministry secretary Justice Agha Rafiq Ahmed Khan told Dawn a summary for the purpose had been sent to the presidency.
The government had offered dialogue to parliamentary opposition last week to discuss the implementation of a Charter of Democracy (CoD) signed in 2006 by the now ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), which, among other things, seeks a restoration of parliament’s powers usurped by two previous military dictators.
But the offer had been overshadowed by the ‘long march’, for which the PML-N had vowed its crucial support and which apparently unnerved the government after it attracted big numbers of people in the Punjab provincial capital Lahore on Sunday.
With the ‘long march’, called off after the prime minister’s address, and the judicial crisis out of the way, plans to take up the CoD seem to have acquired urgency to avoid another face-off between the major political forces.
The issue is likely to come up at a meeting of the PPP Central Executive Committee called by President Asif Ali Zardari as party co-chairman on Thursday to discuss the post-march political situation, which has put a question mark about the political future of the presidency’s autocratic powers whose use seemed to have contributed to the judicial crisis.
The opposition parties will now likely be more keen to implement the CoD through constitutional amendments, mainly to make the president only a figurehead by clipping his office of powers to sack a prime minister, dissolve the National Assembly and appoint armed forces chiefs, provincial governors and the Chief Election Commissioner.
Mr Zardari had proposed in a speech to a joint sitting of the National Assembly and Senate last September that a parliamentary committee ‘revisit’ the constitution’s article 58 (2) (b) and the controversial Seventeenth Amendment that gave him these powers but the government made no move to implement the offer.
A constitutional amendment needs for its passage a two-thirds majority in both the 342-seat National Assembly and the 100-seat Senate, which can be mustered if the main political parties in parliament keep their promises to make parliament sovereign as envisioned in the original 1973 constitution by restoring its lost powers, which were first assumed by military ruler General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88) and later by General Musharraf (1999-2008) and now inherited by Mr Zardari.
DISTRUST IN ZARDARI: Critics had earlier voiced fears President Zardari would not give up all these power by ignoring parts of the CoD as he had done with his written promises to restore the sacked judges.
But his political position could be much weakened with the victory of the ‘long march’ he had opposed tooth and nail with the help of both provincial and federal authorities despite an apparently soft approach advocated by Prime Minister Gilani, who seemed to be gaining a greater respect from the opposition parties and the lawyers’ community.
It was out a trust in the prime minister’s promise to restore the remainder of about 60 judges sacked by General Musharraf under his controversial Nov 3, 2007 emergency proclamation that the ‘long march’, which was scheduled to reach Islamabad on Monday, was called off on its way at Gujranwala.
After enjoying an unquestioned control of the PPP as it co-chairman after the Dec 27, 2007assassination of party leader and his wife Benazir Bhutto, Mr Zardari could now face questions within the party after the government fiasco in handling the lawyers’ movement and the ‘long march’, particularly about the role of some of his advisers like former law minister and now Senate Chairman Farooq H. Naek, Interior Adviser Rehman Malik, and Punjab Governor Salman Taseer.
Two federal ministers resigned last week over differences with the president or his advisers and several party lawmakers, including those who had been close to Ms Benazir, have been complaining privately of being sidelined by the new party leadership.
About 50 of the sacked judges had been reappointed after they opted to take a fresh oath of office, but 11 refused to take that course on the ground that they regarded the Nov 3 extra-constitutional emergency as invalid.
The prime minister’s speech made it clear the remaining judges would get a ‘restoration’ to their offices rather than re-appointment, using a word that seemed aimed at exempting them from taking a fresh oath.
But it was also clear that the tenure of present Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar, who took the office on Nov 3, 2007 after Justice Iftikhar refused to take oath under a controversial Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) and retires on March 21, would be considered valid.
‘In accordance with the president of Pakistan’s and my own promise, I announce the restoration of Mr Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and all other deposed judges to their offices,’ Mr Gilani said in his speech, and added: ‘On the retirement of Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar on 21 March, Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry will assume the office of Chief Justice of Pakistan. A notification of this is just being issued.’
Mr Gilani acknowledged that Justice Iftikhar’s restoration was promised by PPP leader Benazir Bhutto before her Dec 27, 2007 assassination and said that President Zardari too stuck to his promise to do the same.
But he said the ‘fact impeding’ Justice Chaudhry’s restoration was that Justice Dogar had been appointed as chief justice and Mr Zardari had pledged that he would ‘not remove any judge from his office prematurely’.