Judicial Crisis Imperils Pakistan's Musharraf

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf continues to work through the most serious political crisis since he took power in a coup several weeks ago. Musharraf suspended the country's chief justice and since then, public protests have increased. The question is whether this is the crisis that will bring down his presidency.

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Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf's newest political crisis just won't go away. He suspended Pakistan's chief justice of the Supreme Court last month, and protests have been going on ever since.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Islamabad on whether this crisis is the one that could threaten Musharraf's grip on power.

PHILIP REEVES: Pervez Musharraf knows all about being in trouble. Just look at what's happened since this army general seized power in a coup more than seven years ago. He's weathered the massive fallout from 9/11, including the U.S.-led invasion of his neighbor, Afghanistan. He's survived the scandal over Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan, selling atomic secrets to Iran. He's emerged unhurt from several assassination attempts. He's sent tens of thousands of soldiers to crush militants in Pakistan's tribal areas, and lost. And, don't forget, he's also had to deal with south Asia's worst earthquake in living memory.

But the crisis over Musharraf's attempts to throw out Pakistan's chief justice is, says political analyst Nasim Zera, of a different order.

Ms. NASIM ZERA (Political Analyst): That issue, I would say, is the first serious challenge to General Musharraf's government and, more importantly, to the more fundamental question of the sanctity of the constitution.

REEVES: It all started last month. The chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, was suspended pending the outcome of a judicial hearing into allegations of improper conduct. There was uproar. Many saw the move as a brazen attempt by members of the Musharraf administration to get rid of a uncooperative judge, a judge who might support legal moves to block Musharraf's plans to ensure his reelection later this year as president while remaining army chief of staff.

(Soundbite of protest)

REEVES: A few days ago, some 5,000 lawyers and supporters of Pakistan's opposition political parties gathered outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad. Demonstrators called for the judge's reinstatement. Many though wanted more. They're demanding democracy.

Mr. SHAHID IQBAL (Retired Vice Admiral; Former Ambassador): The West should learn that the only thing we want is practicing the same values that you are practicing.

REEVES: That's Shahid Iqbal, a retired vice admiral and former ambassador.

Mr. IQBAL: This crisis is like a crack in the wall. It's raining, and the crack will keep on increasing and the seepage will keep on increasing until the whole structure will fall down.

Mr. IMRAN KHAN (Member of Parliament; Chairman, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf): Well, people like us who have been struggling for democracy, we think this is a defining moment in Pakistan's history.

REEVES: Imran Khan, a celebrated cricketer who's now a Pakistani politician...

Mr. KHAN: Every election since 1970 has been manipulated by the military establishment. And this time, if the chief justice is restored, he will derive his power from the people and therefore he is the first chief justice who will ensure free and fair elections.

President PERVEZ MUSHARRAF (Pakistan): (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: Musharraf is fighting back with feisty public appearances dominating national TV. Yet no one doubts he's been damaged by the affair.

Mr. SAYAD(ph) TALAD HUSSEIN (News Director, AAJ TV): The Musharraf that you saw on the 8th of March was an absolutely powerful man.

REEVES: Sayad Talad Hussein is news director at AAJ TV, a private news channel.

Mr. HUSSEIN: The Musharraf that you now see after 9th of March, when the judicial crisis erupted, is a man who's fairly safe. But this is a declining process.

REEVES: Hussein points out Musharraf does have some important cards in his hand. Behind Musharraf stands Pakistan's two most powerful institutions, the army and the intelligence services. Pakistan's also been the beneficiary of billions of dollars from the United States, thanks to Musharraf's support for the war on terror. He's popular within the business world, and his opponents are divided.

Mr. HUSSEIN: But even that put together does not give him the kind of power that he used to enjoy previously, in which he could do anything and get away with it. This time around he did not get away with it.

REEVES: Will the chief justice controversy eventually bring Musharraf down? It seems far-fetched right now but not impossible, says political analyst Nasim Zera.

Ms. ZERA: It's really a self-inflicted, unplanned wound, which can be fatal if it's not handled carefully.

REEVES: Carefully handling such a critical issue is not easy, as Musharraf is now finding out.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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