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Pakistan's bigger problems

The unrest rooted in the rivalry between President Asif Ali Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif distracts from the threats of a weak economy and a strengthening Islamic insurgency.

March 18, 2009

In Islamabad, it's not only "the economy, stupid," it's the Islamic insurgency. Those are the most urgent threats to Pakistan, and yet it was the country's weak democratic institutions and political rivalries that nearly provoked sweeping civil unrest this week. Though partly responsible for the crisis, President Asif Ali Zardari nonetheless pulled the nation back from the brink of violence, inadvertently offering glimmers of hope in the process.

Pakistan is struggling to find an equilibrium among its executive, legislative and judicial branches of government and the powerful military that has run the country through much of its short history. One casualty in that struggle had been the country's chief justice, who was removed from the Supreme Court two years ago by the former president and military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Street protests over the court led to Musharraf's resignation, and when the country returned to civilian rule, Zardari promised to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and four other justices. But Zardari delayed for more than a year, apparently fearing that Chaudhry would dig up old corruption charges against him. He also enjoyed the fact that a friendlier court had banned leaders of the rival political dynasty from office in Punjab province, thereby neutralizing Zardari's nemesis. Or so he thought.

Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif responded by taking up the popular demand for Chaudhry's reinstatement, and led a week of street protests on his behalf that were headed for a violent confrontation in the capital. After calls from U.S. special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and quiet pressure from the head of the Pakistani military, Zardari backed down. The justices are to return to the bench on Sunday, and Sharif and his brother are to resume leadership of Punjab. And this is why we are hopeful: The Obama administration made clear that it would not back Zardari at all costs, as the Bush administration had once done for Musharraf. The military, led by Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, signaled that it was not willing to support Zardari in an internal political dispute. Nor did the general launch a military coup, as others have before him. And although prodded by Sharif, the Pakistani people demonstrated effectively on behalf of the rule of law.

Zardari is weakened now, and Sharif will be emboldened. But we hope that the two will keep their rivalry in check long enough to turn their attention to the more pressing issues of Pakistan's economic collapse and the Islamic militants who are gaining ground. Average Pakistanis put aside their personal concerns to take a stand for democracy. Perhaps their leaders could do the same.

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