Pakistan's Government Averts Judicial Confrontation

Government officials in Pakistan withdrew orders from President Asif Ali Zardari, and instead appointed judges to the Supreme Court which were recommended by the chief justice. Lawyers across Pakistan had rallied to protest Zardari's appointments, saying the president had usurped the authority of the chief justice.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Pakistan, the president blinked and avoided a crisis that threatened to destabilize the country. A standoff was brewing over who has the right to appoint judges. The president tried to appoint a new one to the high court, which prompted Pakistan's lawyers to take to the streets. From Islamabad, NPR's Julie McCarthy has more on an ongoing power struggle.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Pakistan braced this week for more political upheaval when an arcane legal question morphed into a turbo-charged political dispute. On one side was the crusading chief justice, arguably the most popular man in Pakistan - on the other, the embattled president, whose poll numbers hover in the teens.

When President Asif Ali Zardari attempted five days ago to appoint a judge to the Supreme Court in a manner that many lawyers said usurped the authority of the chief justice, it sparked a chain reaction across the country. Members of the bar, black suited and boisterous, poured into the streets.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

MCCARTHY: Part chant, part warning to the president, they shouted: Do not pick a fight with the lawyers. It was the lawyers' movement that had forced President Zardari to reinstate Chief Justice Chaudhry, who had been ousted by Zardari's unelected predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf.

But last night came the news that the battle between the Titans - as the media has dubbed this dispute - was over. Dinner, tea and sanity read one newspaper editorial today. It refers to the marathon session that the prime minister convened yesterday with the Supreme Court chief, in which the government blinked and the chief justice got his way. Minutes after the government's concession, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told parliament that the executive head approved the chief justice's nominees for the Supreme Court, effectively withdrawing the president's.

Prime Minister YOUSUF RAZA GILANI (Pakistan): (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: We did this in a proper consultation in accordance with the constitution, the prime minister said. As members pounded their shoes in approval, he said that withdrawal of the old nominees and their replacement with new ones would strengthen the stability of the country.

The constitution states that the president, after consultation with the chief justice, shall fill Supreme Court vacancies. Court interpretations say the consultation must be effective and meaningful, leaving no room for arbitrariness. The chief justice's office said before yesterday, that hadn't happened. And legal scholars also say that the court has interpreted the constitution as giving greater weight to the chief justice in matters of appointments.

Pakistan has a history of clashes between the executive and the judiciary. Analyst and newspaper editor Rashid Rahman says tensions between President Zardari and the Supreme Court began when he delayed the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry a year ago, only conceding when civil society raised a rumpus.

Mr. RASHID RAHMAN (Analyst, Newspaper Editor): So it's the pattern of either resisting something that is a popular demand or doing something that is not a popular demand, and then in both cases having to retreat under pressure, which doesn't exactly make you look good or come out smelling like roses.

MCCARTHY: And Rahman says it's not the end of the affair. The Supreme Court voided an amnesty from prosecution that covered President Zardari and several ministers. And the court has revived a series of corruption cases against the president, which he is anxious to avoid.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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