These changes are rooted in the 2006 Charter of Democracy (CoD), an agreement between Sharif and the late Benazir Bhutto, who was chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) at the time. During the 1990s, Bhutto and Sharif mercilessly battled one another while also staving off a predatory military. Each ruled for two truncated terms. And in 1999, Pakistan’s democratic experiment ended when Gen. Pervez Musharraf overthrew Sharif and made himself chief executive.
By 2006, Bhutto and Sharif found themselves outside of Pakistan, not only in exile and but almost irrelevant. Musharraf’s approval ratings in Pakistan were high and he was viewed in western capitals as a reformer and an essential partner in the war on terror. With robust economic growth in Pakistan and a host of mega-development projects in the works, including a massive, new Chinese-built port along the Arabian Sea, the two civilian giants of the 1990s were now dwarfs.
With good reason, one could say that a Pakistani Spring began in London in May 2006, when Bhutto and Sharif signed the CoD, a pledge by both parties to commit to dozens of political reforms that would bolster democracy, advance equitable resource sharing, and enhance consensus-building bodies in parliament and other arenas.
The CoD was a landmark achievement in Pakistan’s political history and the product of tough lessons learned by Bhutto and Sharif. Internecine civilian strife during the 1990s strengthened the military’s hand. Bhutto and Sharif realized that the two largest democratic parties must band together to protect their collective political space.
In 2007, Musharraf began secret power sharing talks with Bhutto backed by London and Washington. This was a blatant violation of the CoD. Later that year, he sacked a defiant chief justice and ordered a deadly raid on militant-controlled Islamic institutions in Islamabad, Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa, leading, respectively, to a civil society movement and terrorism wave that would eventually lead to the return of Bhutto and Sharif and relatively free and fair elections in 2008.
Those elections would bring the PPP to power in a coalition government with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League faction (PML-N) — for the first time ever. But that union would not last long. Asif Ali Zardari, who took over the party after Bhutto’s assassination, balked at following through on agreements made with Sharif to implement the CoD and restore the judges deposed by Musharraf in November 2007. And so the PML-N left the coalition at the center and waged a Long March to Islamabad in March 2009. Before the protestors could reach the capital, a deal was reached after the decisive intervention by Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashraf Parvez Kayani. Zardari and then-Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani agreed to restore the judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.