ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan's fragile coalition government agreed Thursday to reinstate the chief justice and 60 other judges fired by Pervez Musharraf, a move almost certain to spell trouble for the U.S.-backed president, government officials said.
Under a compromise between the parties that's expected to be revealed Friday, the judges will be restored, but the powers of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry will be reined in. Also, the pro-Musharraf judges who took the oath of office in November will be kept in office.
According to officials close to the negotiations, Chaudhry's tenure will be limited to five years in office, meaning that he would have another two years in the job. Previously, he could have continued until retirement in 2013.
The month-old ruling coalition had looked to be in danger of splitting over the issue of bringing back Chaudhry and the other judges who were dismissed by Musharraf in November, when he put the country under a six-week period of emergency rule.
The party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had staked its political credibility on being able to reinstate the judiciary, but its senior coalition partner, the Pakistan People's Party, led by Asif Zardari, appeared reluctant to start a confrontation with Musharraf. The threatened departure of Sharif's party, had there been no agreement, would have opened the way for Musharraf's allies to replace them.
"There is no ambiguity; there is no doubt about it," Sharif said after a marathon two-day negotiating session with Zardari in Dubai. "The restoration of the judges will take place."
The shortening of Chaudhry's term will be part of a "constitutional package" that will bring in new laws on the functioning of the judiciary, which will follow a resolution to reinstate the judges - a resolution that's expected to be debated early next week. Chaudhry's judicial activism had led to an epic clash with Musharraf, which the president finally ended by firing him.
"Both the parties have no choice but to stick together. They are vulnerable. Musharraf is still in the system, " said Kamran Bokhari, the director of Middle East analysis at Stratfor, a private U.S. firm. "If they parted ways it would only strengthen Musharraf and the argument of those people who say that Pakistan is not suited to democracy."
A close aide of Sharif, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said: "We are not in the driving seat (of the coalition). It's the best that we could do. At least it's not what Musharraf wants."
Chaudhry's return may lead to renewed legal scrutiny for cases that the People's Party and Washington would prefer remain closed, including the amnesty granted to Zardari and the issue of hundreds of Pakistani who have disappeared since 9/11, some of whom may be in U.S. custody. Chaudhry had taken up both issues before Musharraf ousted him.
One leading member of the People's Party, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said: "Musharraf does not believe that the coalition can last, but we've shown that we can accommodate each other's political necessities."
The government missed its self-imposed deadline of April 30 for bringing the judges back. Instead of resolving the issue, Zardari suddenly left Pakistan for Dubai, where his daughters live, which left an impression of disarray - until Sharif and half of Pakistan's Cabinet flew to Dubai to force talks with Zardari.
The test of the compromise will be the reaction of Pakistan's powerful lawyers' movement, which took to the streets for the judges, and Chaudhry himself. But the bigger question is how Musharraf will respond.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.
© McClatchy Newspapers 2008