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There are defining moments in the life of every nation. Pakistan can rightly claim that the March 16, 2009 restoration of Ifthikar Chaudhary as Chief Justice was just such a moment in its 61-year history.

In six decades, Pakistanis have been used more to judges buckling under military rulers than to the likes of Mr. Chaudhary. Exactly two years ago, he set a new tone by refusing to bow to pressure from the then President and Army Chief, Pervez Musharraf, to quit office. For this single act of defiance, he was deified.

His subsequent reinstatement by the Supreme Court, and his forcible removal from office by General Musharraf in the Nov. 3, 2007, emergency only raised his standing. It is unfortunate that under the leadership of President Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistan People’s Party, the only political force in Pakistan offering a progressive political agenda, was unable to read the pulse of the people on this issue.

After his party was voted to power, Mr. Zardari tried to nimble-foot his way out of restoring Mr. Chaudhary, succeeding for nearly a year. The government was forced into relenting on the issue when the opposition Pakistan Muslim League, led by Nawaz Sharif, joined a persistent lawyers’ struggle and launched a mass rally towards the capital. Mr. Sharif has emerged as the other hero of this saga. The Supreme Court’s disqualification order against him and his brother Shahbaz will surely be revoked soon.
The same goes for Governor’s rule in Punjab province. As for the PPP, it will take time to recover from this political setback, which has isolated Mr. Zardari within the party. There are questions about his future as President, especially as he has looked quite the lame duck in the last few days while Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani spearheaded initiatives to defuse the crisis.

Before raising a toast to people’s power, it must be noted that the role of the Pakistan Army and the country’s chief international patron, the United States, in guiding the two political forces away from an all-out confrontation on the streets has, in fact, underlined that the country’s real power centers are extra-democratic and extra-national. The restoration is by itself no guarantee of an independent judiciary, although it can provide a good foundation.

Mr. Chaudhary’s return — he is to take charge on March 22 after the present Chief Justice retires — may raise issues of constitutional propriety unless the government is prepared to go one step further and review the post-November 3, 2007, judicial and constitutional changes, all upheld by the Supreme Court. But for now, Pakistan is savoring the moment.

India will be happy with this triumph of democracy as well as the defusing of a dangerous crisis in its neighborhood.

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