Leading article: A stand-off that threatens to destabilise not only Pakistan

President Zardari must honour his promise to reinstate the judges

Share
Related Topics

Chaotic scenes in Lahore yesterday seemed to stand for the plight of all Pakistan. Riot police fired tear-gas; demonstrators waved banners and threw stones. And the leader of the country's opposition Muslim League, Nawaz Sharif, defied what he said was a house arrest order to join the "long march" of protest to Islamabad. The country is now set for the long-awaited, and potentially lethal, duel between Mr Sharif, twice prime minister in the past, and Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari.

Yet again it could be observed, what a difference a year makes. Only 12 months ago, hopes for stability in Pakistan were high. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the disorderly election campaign that preceded it had given way not, as widely feared, to violence or a military takeover, but to a serious and largely peaceful election that was judged to be reasonably free and fair. Ms Bhutto's widower, Mr Zardari, and his old adversary briefly made common cause.

Central to their decision was a pledge to reinstate the judges dismissed by Pervez Musharraf in his desperate effort to hold on to power. And for a few months there was an unaccustomed air of optimism, a sense not only that Pakistan had survived the worst, very much against the odds, but that the country's politicians were ready to co-operate for the greater national good and at one in wanting to restore the rule of law.

That this did not happen, and the bitterness of Mr Sharif and many others that it did not, is what precipitated the "long march", currently heading towards the capital. A year, they argued reasonably enough, was quite long enough to wait for the president to honour his promise.

Mr Sharif's – surely calculated, but still courageous – decision to join the protest in person, and the fact that his car was allowed through the police cordon around his residence yesterday, might be said to show President Zardari's strength. More likely, however, it highlights his weakness.

The ambiguity surrounding Mr Sharif's house arrest suggests an inability to enforce it. And without the reinstatement of the judges, the courts, and the forces of law and order are seen in many quarters as lacking legitimacy. The Supreme Court remains the one that Mr Musharraf put in place to support him. It is the same court that disqualified Mr Sharif from politics and barred his brother, Shahbaz, from seeking re-election in Punjab. And it is the same court that recently sanctioned the placing of Punjab, the Muslim League's power base, under direct federal rule.

The opposition's "long march" has, and was intended to have, noble precedents, including Gandhi's peaceful protest of 1930. But mass actions of this kind, however non-violent the intent, risk running out of control. The inadequacies of law enforcement in Pakistan were recently exposed by the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, also in Lahore. With the central authorities blocking routes to the capital, it would be foolish to regard a peaceful end to this march as a foregone conclusion.

Somehow, though, the stand-off has to be resolved – preferably without the intervention of Pakistan's weakened military. With the Taliban extending its power in neighbouring Afghanistan, there is now a real danger of instability erupting across the whole region. President Zardari's dilemma is that, if he yields on the judges, the new Supreme Court could in turn challenge his authority. He has to recognise that almost any other course would be worse.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Ashdown Group: PHP Web Developer / Website Coordinator (PHP, JavaScript)

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: PHP Web...

Recruitment Genius: Estates Projects & Resources Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in London, Manchester, Br...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: moderate, iconic royals are a shoe-in for a pedantic kicking

Guy Keleny
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: Cameron is running scared from the “empty chair”

Oliver Wright
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us