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Early polls seen as way out of CJ crisis

April 30, 2007

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ISLAMABAD, April 29: President Gen Pervez Musharraf, faced with perhaps the biggest challenge to his authority in the form of the pro-chief justice agitation, has told his critics within the government that he has no plan to withdraw the reference against the country’s highest adjudicator, and has asked them to make up their minds “if you are with me or not” on the matter.

Following his recent declaration at a meeting of some senior members of the government, there were visible signs of the anti-reference politicians within the ruling clique drifting back to the president’s camp with Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain coming out to lead a pro-Musharraf rally to take on the supporters of the `suspended’ chief justice.

More such street action is expected in the coming days as even inside the courtroom the government received a boost when another vocal opponent of the reference, Sharifuddin Pirzada, appeared before a Supreme Court bench to defend the government in a petition filed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

The president’s view, as explained at various meetings since the start of the crisis, was that it was not just about the charges mentioned in the reference. The ‘charges’ in the reference are the ones that, in the view of the president’s legal advisers, are legally tenable. But these are not the only reason for the unprecedented action.

A fly on the wall in the Presidency has seen and heard a lot more about the circumstances which led to the filing of the reference against the chief justice. It is now clear that a handful of top government leaders, including the prime minister, questioned some crucial judgments and the chief justice’s behaviour, both inside and outside the court, and influenced the president’s opinion.

Others who reinforced the view included the president’s chief of staff, the law secretary and the attorney general. Based on such briefings, the president got convinced that the country’s top adjudicator had been “irresponsible” and “unfair” in handling some of the cases, and “vindictive” and “unreasonable” in dealing with a few high court judges, and some of the senior officials of the police and bureaucracy. The president’s view by this time was that the chief justice was also out of line on the issue of his own rights and privileges, particularly on the question of his security and protocol.

Still, the issue that was seriously bothering the president, and the government, was the chief justice’s judicial activism which, they thought, was clearly “undermining the executive.” It is difficult to pinpoint the precise moment when the chief justice and the government’s relations reached a point of no return, but the Supreme Court’s decision – hailed by environmentalists as a landmark -- to prevent the New Murree project by issuing a stay order is seen as a crucial factor.

The government’s view was further cemented when a nine-member bench headed by the chief justice reversed the controversial privatisation of the state-run Pakistan Steel. If the first decision had irked the chief minister of Punjab, the prime minister became a disturbed man after the Steel Mills verdict. Sources say, over a period of time, he convinced the president that the court order could be a serious blow to the entire privatisation process.

In the end, the president also believed that the privatisation of Steel Mills was “in line with international best practice”.

But equally bizarre, if not more, were the developments that preceded the Steel Mills verdict. We have been told that a day before the verdict the chief justice reportedly met Gen Musharraf to discuss the case. The attorney general was also present at the meeting. During the course of discussion, the president requested the chief justice against doing anything that may disrupt the privatisation process. And the word from the presidency is that an assurance was extended. However, the verdict was just the opposite which, in the president’s view, made the chief justice “unreliable” and “untrustworthy” because he refused to be influenced.

There were some other cases that also created unhappiness in government circles such as the chief justice’s decision to prevent one of Islamabad’s public parks from being converted into a commercial venture. In what was seen by most people as a case of favouritism, a mediocre dramatist from Lahore was given the park for peanuts, but after a series of protests by the citizens, the decision was reversed through a court order. For some inexplicable reason, the decision was not liked by the Presidency.

By this time Justice Chaudhry’s judicial activism had started to seriously bother the government, and some of its members saw his ‘suo motu’ actions as the bane of their existence. They disapproved of the way senior police officials were being summoned and reprimanded in the courtroom for not taking prompt action in cases of rape, abduction and even honour killings. Similar complaints were also being made by some administration officials from the Punjab and Sindh. That such actions were being praised by ordinary people was not given any consideration.

Then the president was told that the chief justice was making“unnecessary” demands for increased security, better escort, more sophisticated vehicles, and was “misusing” privileges. Still, there were quite a few well wishers of the president, including the government’s top legal adviser, who were opposed to the idea of taking action against the chief justice. But ultimately the anti-CJ view prevailed, prompting the president to take possibly the most controversial decision of his seven-and-half-year stint in power.

Sources say the ongoing agitation has come as a shock to the president as he had been told that after the initial fireworks the protest would die down, and then it would be left to the Supreme Judicial Council to decide the CJ’s fate. As the crisis continued, he was advised at one stage by none other than the President of PML, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, to swallow his pride and withdraw the reference, or to publicly acknowledge that he was wrongly advised and then restore the status quo ante.

Sources said the president promised to consider the proposals but later declared that withdrawing the reference against the CJ was not an option.

The president saw the series of speeches by the CJ at different bar associations as a clear attempt to politicise the matter and dug in his heels.

Now the big question before the government was how to handle the unending street protest. The first move came in the form of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain leading a pro-Musharraf rally as, for the first time, a large number of ministers came out in the open to support the presidential reference. But this too may not be that useful as, observers say, it may attract bigger anti-Musharraf crowds on the streets in the coming days.

The president believes the crisis is serious and not one easily put behind him. Intelligence assessments being presented to the president suggest that in all the protests so far, opposition activists have outnumbered the lawyers. Even among the protesting lawyers, they say, the majority of the black-coats are affiliated with one opposition group or the other.

One assessment is that if this crisis continues for a few more months then either the protest will start to fizzle out, or the election season will start, and the attention of the politically-motivated protesters would turn towards a more attractive exercise. Some are even suggesting that an early solution could be to bring forward the general election.