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Home > India > News > Columnists > Praful Bidwai


Impressive victory of people's power in Pakistan

March 23, 2009

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The world public must applaud the people of Pakistan for fighting authoritarianism and taking a major step towards real democratisation through an independent judiciary. It is a tribute to the moral strength of the civil society mobilisation for the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry that it brought President Asif Ali Zardari [Images] to his knees peacefully. The agitation has broken the fear barrier in Pakistan. This is a historic gain.

In the event, all the repressive means taken to thwart the lawyers' Long March proved useless, including preventive arrests, gagging of the media, blocking off of roads, and barricades in Islamabad [Images] with transport containers. The final planned crackdown, beginning with the house arrest of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif [Images] -- which he defied -- never materialised. The police didn't obey orders to prevent people from joining the Long March, and the government was left with no choice but to announce that it would restore Chaudhry and other deposed superior court judges and appeal the recent order disqualifying Sharif, and his brother and former Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, from holding elected office.

People's power has won out in Pakistan -- for the third time since end-2007, after forcing President Pervez Musharraf [Images] to call a general election last February, and compelling him to step down last August. The perseverance of the civil society movement in carrying out this long fight deserves respect. It also gives the lie to the proposition that that the Pakistani people's democratic aspirations have been blunted by Islam and/or by long years of military rule.

Admittedly, several processes mediated the government's decision to climb down. Of crucial importance were Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Ashfaq Kiyani's marathon meetings with President Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani [Images] and Sharif. No less significant was the role of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton [Images], US special envoy for Afghanistan-Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, and UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

All of them told the principal adversaries that they must avoid a confrontation. Clinton reportedly threatened to cut off aid to Pakistan if Zardari refused reconciliation. He first agreed to a face-saving package under which the Supreme Court would review the Sharif brothers' disqualification, but resisted the restoration of the deposed judges -- until it became plain that with thousands pouring in to join in the Long March, his authority would totally collapse unless he agrees to a compromise based on the Charter of Democracy signed in May 2006 between assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto [Images] and Sharif.

This mediation only shows that Pakistan's power centres are neither fully civilian nor internal, and that Pakistan's crisis cannot yet be resolved on the basis of its own political resources. These resources are poorly developed, as are Pakistan's democratic institutions, themselves repeatedly ravaged by military rule and a fractious and opportunistic civilian leadership.

Hopefully, the March 16 breather will help revive Pakistan's democratic institutions -- if all the concerned players act responsibly and in a spirit of cooperation. This is a tall order. The parties that have gained the most from the recent events are those that supported the Long March: Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Jamaat-i-Islami and Imran Khan's [Images] Tehreek-i-Insaf.

These are right-of-centre organisations, with sympathies for religious extremism and with deep reservations about combating the Taliban [Images] and their allies in Pakistan. Whether and how they can be accommodated into Pakistan's power structures, and how various forces and individuals play out their roles will determine whether Pakistan makes a secure transition to democracy with a certain degree of legitimacy, or descends into chaos.

Justice Chaudhry has emerged as a super-hero and shining symbol of judicial independence and integrity because he took a bold stand against the Provisional Constituted Order passed by President Pervez Musharraf in November 2007 to suspend the Constitution, declare Emergency, and dismiss recalcitrant judges earlier restored by the Supreme Court.

This is no small irony. Chaudhry was himself sworn in as a Supreme Court judge in 2000 under another PCO! He sat on four benches which validated General Musharraf's military takeover, his obnoxious Legal Framework Order, and the 17th Amendment, which gave him additional powers while continuing as army chief. To his credit, Chaudhry changed dramatically. After 2006, he became a defender of judicial independence to the point of promoting activism. Musharraf was especially alarmed at his suo moto investigation into the sale of a state-owned steel mill and into some 500 cases of "missing persons".

Choudhry must now behave in a scrupulously correct manner. He must not be seen to favour judicial activism or sit on benches which hear challenges to the PCO, and even more important, to the October 2007 National Reconciliation Ordinance passed by the Musharraf regime. The NRO was an egregiously collusive arrangement under which charges of corruption and looting national wealth against Zardari and Bhutto were extinguished and they were allowed to return to Pakistan from exile.

Chaudhry is known to be opposed to these legislations. But if he personally decides their validity, it will be seen as abuse of judicial authority to reach a pre-determined verdict and hence as an unhealthy mix of policies and law.

However, the Supreme Court headed by Chaudhry must not fight shy of inquiring into the "missing persons" cases. Their number is now estimated at close to 1,000. Many of them were suspected jehadi militants or Baloch separatists. They were rounded up by the army and police without proper investigation or charges. Some were illegally "rendered" to the US for detention in Guantanamo Bay, Bagram (Afghanistan) and other centres. Some were tortured. It's vital to know what happened to them so that their rights and freedoms are safeguarded.

An impartial and credible inquiry into these abductions will undoubtedly rattle the US, which has much to hide. But there's simply no alternative to this if Pakistan is to move towards genuine judicial independence, and respect for human dignity and fundamental rights. It goes without saying that Chaudhry will have to walk the tightrope while defending the integrity of the judiciary as an institution, and resist the temptation to cater to his euphoric supporters.

Sharif's political stock has risen to a point where people might forget his tainted past. From all available indications, the Americans would like him to be given a place in the federal power structure so that he's "inside the tent" rather than outside, where he can make trouble. If this is done in a messy and collusive way, the government will lose what's left of its legitimacy. A dignified consensual arrangement with a democratic mandate must be found.

This won't be easy. It requires the US to be more alert and responsive to Pakistani sensibilities in respect of targeting its border areas with drone and missile attacks. Sharif is called upon to play a statesman-like role with patience and willingness to honour the Charter of Democracy, which says that neither the PPP nor the PML will resort to military or external mediation to resolve differences, and that they will set up a national judicial commission to make superior court appointments.

This charter has been violated repeatedly in practice. Zardari merely imitated Musharraf in packing the courts with arbitrarily chosen but pliant judges. Yet, the solution is not to discard the charter, but to implement it honestly. This demands an expansive vision and a willingness to cooperate and build a democratic consensus.

Zardari has emerged mauled from the Long March stand-off. He overreached himself and thought he could get away by violating his own commitments. This has further eroded his authority. Worse, he has tried to undermine his own party, Pakistan's biggest political organisation, with a well-ramified structure and cadre. He had no organisational-political relationship with the PPP till his wife was killed. As co-chairperson, he has marginalised or banished every major party leader, including former Presidential aspirant Makhdoom Amin Fahim, lawyers' movement leader Aitzaz Ahsan, Leader of the House Raza Rabbani, and Benazir Bhutto confidants like Nahid Khan, Safdar Abbassi and Sherry Rehman.

A question-mark now hangs over Zardari's ability to govern Pakistan. But that hasn't deterred him from playing devious games with help from the PML-Q. The PPP should replace him soon. If the NRO is struck down, that will make untenable his continuation as a politician even without constitutional office.

Pakistan's new political equations spell contestations and instability. The central question is if the democratisation process consolidates itself -- even with ups and downs -- to a point where Pakistan is better able to tackle its multiple and structural crises, combat jehadi extremism, and build stronger civilian institutions before greater turmoil overwhelms the country.

The whole world has a vital stake in Pakistan's sustained evolution towards democracy. If Pakistan succeeds, the world will gain immensely; so will the cause of moderation in Islamic societies. If Pakistan descends into chaos, it will become the world's primary fountainhead of nightmarish extremism, terror and Taliban-style brutishness.


Praful Bidwai



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