Pakistan: PM Takes on Musharraf

As expected, Yousaf Raza Gilani, a stalwart of the Pakistan People's Party, was overwhelmingly elected the country's new prime minister on Monday. He garnered 264 votes in the 342-member lower house of parliament against a paltry 42 for the candidate of President Pervez Musharraf's opposition party. When the final vote was announced, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the party's co-chairman and the 19-year-old son of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who was assassinated by a suicide bomber last December, was seen wiping away a tear as he sat in the assembly's visitors gallery. Chants of "Long live Bhutto!" and "Go Musharraf, Go!" rang out from gallery. Quickly Gilani, the soft-spoken but highly respected 55-year-old former national assembly speaker, immediately set the course that he is expected to follow in a short speech following his victory. "If you want this country to work, the parliament must be supreme, the constitution sacred and the rule of law enforced," he said.
With those words he seems to have set himself and his coalition government on a collision course with the already seriously weakened Musharraf. Ever since overthrowing the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless 1999 coup, Musharraf has run a one-man show, manipulating parliament and amending the constitution almost at will to strengthen his position and prolong his rule. In defiance of the president, Gilani also made two pledges. One is to seek a parliamentary resolution to ask the United Nations to undertake a thorough investigation of Bhutto's death—a move Musharraf rejected. The second was to order the immediate release of all justices, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was deposed and put under house arrest when Musharraf declared a state of emergency last November. It is widely believed that the president resorted to such extraconstitutional measures to disarm the Supreme Court, which was weighing whether the president's re-election to another five-year term was constitutional.
No sooner had Gilani ordered the freeing of the justices than police removed the barbed wire and concrete barriers blocking the way to Chaudhry's house on a bluff overlooking Islamabad. Chaudhry and his family had been held incommunicado for the past four and a half months. Even his school-age children were not allowed to leave the house. Upon hearing the news, hundreds of lawyers, supporters and journalists converged on the justice's hilltop house. Many made their way onto the front lawn by climbing over an eight-foot fence. Finally, Chaudhry and his family made an appearance on the second-floor balcony of the large, two-story house. Wearing a black tunic, Chaudhry waved to the jubilant crowd gathered on his front lawn and outside on the street. "I thank all the people who struggled very hard for the rule of law and to reach this day," he said.
Chaudhry may be free to move about, but he has not been restored to the bench as the court's head. That, however, may only be a matter of time. Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower who is also PPP co-chairman along with his son Bilawal, and Sharif—who heads the second-largest party in the national assembly—have pledged to move for a parliamentary resolution within one month calling for the restoration of Chaudhry and some 60 other sacked judges. Musharraf, fearing he could be unseated by the court, will doubtless use his own phalanx of lawyers to fight against the restoration of Chaudhry and his colleagues. But it may be a losing battle. "The public pressure and momentum will grow [for the judges' restoration]," says newly elected assembly deputy Ayaz Amir. Leading lawyer Asma Jahangir agrees. "Dictators should learn that people's power will overcome eventually," she said, standing outside Chaudhry's residence. Gilani's sudden announcement almost overshadowed his election. "The real show was in the national assembly today," Amir added, speaking on Chaudhry's front lawn. "But as soon as he [Gilani] ordered the freeing of the judges, the center of gravity shifted here."
Musharraf still wields power and will swear in Gilani as premier on Tuesday. But if Gilani and Chaudhry have their way, Musharraf's political future may be purely ceremonial at best.