Monday, March 16, 2009

Pakistan Abates Political Crisis

It is a fact that there are defining moments in the life of every country. The present crisis that had gripped Pakistan seems to have been defused somewhat with the Government accepting the demands of the agitating lawyers and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N). The Prime Minister of Pakistan Yousuf Raza Gilani on March 16, 2009 announced the reinstatement of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and other judges who were sacked by Gen Pervez Musharraf in 2007, and thus brought to an end the political crisis which had gripped that country for more than a week.
The Prime Minister Gilani even went a step further and revoked the ban on political gatherings in Punjab and Sindh Provinces, and ordered the release of all political activists who had been arrested in the protests so far. He also indicated that Governor’s rule in Punjab province would be scrapped — although no time frame has been set for this — and formally announced his Government’s intention to file a review petition against the Supreme Court order banning the Sharif brothers from contesting elections or holding public office. If all of this sounds like a huge capitulation it is because this is precisely what it is.

Victory for Nawaz Sharif
The judicial status quo ante will be restored with deposed Chief Justice Chaudhry to be reinstated. The restoration of Justice Chaudhry as Chief Justice after two years of the lawyers’ agitation meets Sharif’s key demand. The PML (N) leader, twice a Prime Minister, had refused to enter into any kind of deal on this question, which increased his following among the public considerably. The judicial issue had, in fact, acquired emotional overtones because of the support of civil society.

Sharif has pulled off the unthinkable, and is the toast of the classes that engage in active politics in Pakistan. To his credit, the former Prime Minister conducted himself as a stalwart political figure. He led from the front, and showed remarkable nerve and negotiation skills, which helped the country from tipping over the precipice.

The stand-off with lawyers and Nawaz Sharif, and the subsequent climb-down, have considerably weakened the President Asif Ali Zardari, who has shied away from public contact since September 2008, and eroded his credibility. But political observers describe him as a survivor and expect him to live with the humiliation.

The next round of the battle is expected to be fought in Punjab province, which elects more than half the members of the National Assembly. The provincial government headed by Shahbaz Sharif, younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, was dismissed and central rule imposed in the province after the supreme court debarred the brothers from holding public office. Sharifs claim that the ruling is vitiated and relied on old and politically motivated cases.

But while the PML (N) is the largest party in the provincial Assembly, it does not have a majority. Zardari’s PPP is the second largest party and a smaller party, said to be loyal to Musharraf, holds the balance of power. Any attempt to deny power in Punjab to the Sharif brothers might lead to yet another stand-off.

The latest such political struggle has represented a slight variation of the theme. The person who has been left cock of the walk is Sharif. The presidency of Zardari has emerged isolated within the Pakistani polity and its authority severely reduced. Zardari showed remarkably poor political acumen when he declined to reinstate the popular Justice Chaudhry, and then backing Supreme Court’s decision to nullify Sharif’s election as Governor of Punjab.

Roles of US and Army
The agreement between Sharif and Zardari has come about obviously with the intervention of Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani. It seems that the Army had been in favour of conceding the demands of Sharif, though hated by top Generals, to ensure that he was not able to make use of the lawyers’ agitation for his wider political objectives. That is why Gilani, who is in the good books of the Army, had been trying to convince Zardari for a few days to take the course he has chosen after much loss of face.

The defection of Gilani and his own failure to win the backing of either the Army or the US Administration left Zardari little choice but to throw in the towel. At the moment, Sharif has used the crisis to consolidate his position within Pakistan. First, he has ensured that Washington, until now the main opponent of his political resurrection, has accepted that he is the primus inter pares in Pakistan’s political pantheon. Second, the past few days of political theatre have wiped out popular memories of the authoritarian bent he showed before being overthrown by Musharraf. Finally, and most important, he has shown Zardari to be a President minus support or credibility to both external and internal players in politics of the country.

Moreover, it is encouraging that the Army chose not to intervene directly, although Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was constantly in touch with Gilani. This is how it must remain: No matter how wobbly a civilian Government, the Army is not a better alternative. Pakistani democracy must learn to stand on its own two feet and resolve disputes through dialogue. But most of all it should learn that it is not the Sharifs or the Zardaris but the ordinary people of Pakistan who can change the destiny of the country — and rescue it from the Taliban waiting in the wings.

And sure enough Pakistan did not disappoint, nor did the US. In trying to clamp down on the protesting lawyers and Opposition activists the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Government unwittingly gave Sharif the fuel that he needed to ignite a raging fire. It will be interesting to watch how the PPP’s internal politics articulates itself and how the country’s most influential political formation deals with the widower of its assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who has lately exhibited his political bankruptcy. The degree as well as the process of accommodation between Gilani and Sharif is certain to be keenly watched in the present environment.

Restoration of Democracy
Undoubtedly, the recent instability and political events in Pakistan have confirmed it is that the Pakistani establishment is still a long distance away from coming to terms with a modern democracy. Even though most in Pakistan will acknowledge that democracy is the best form of governance, no one — least of all the Pakistani leaders — has the slightest idea what this means. As a result, whoever comes to power in Islamabad is extremely insecure, a fact that was amply demonstrated by Zardari’s Government. Democracy does not mean coming to power and using State instruments to crack down on political opponents. Neither does it mean taking to the streets and clashing with law enforcement personnel in a show of strength.

The restoration is by itself no guarantee of an independent judiciary, although it can provide a good foundation. Justice Chaudhary’s return — he is to take charge on March 22 after the present Chief Justice retires — may raise issues of constitutional propriety unless the government is prepared to go one step further and review the post-November 3, 2007 judicial and constitutional changes, all upheld by the Supreme Court. But for now, Pakistan is savouring the moment.

No matter who holds the office of President, extraordinary powers in the President's hands cry out for abuse. Many are suggesting a return to Constitution of the country as it was in 1973, before Zia ul-Haq and other military rulers began tampering with it in order to increase the powers of the President. Such a constitutional change, together with allowing the judiciary to operate independently, may be what it takes to restore stability in Pakistan. It is the time for the people of Pakistan and their political representatives to work together to peacefully strengthen their democracy. Otherwise political instability such as the latest one it has just seen will recur.

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