An epoch-making struggle
By Imtiaz Gul
Weekly Pulse, Islamabad March 19, 2009
Regardless of the political knit-picking for the proposed 18th Amendment that is likely to take centre stage in and on the fringes of the parliament in the weeks and months ahead, the lawyers’ movement, led by Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan and his colleagues Munir A. Malik, Ali Ahmed Kurd, Lateef Afridi, Athar Minallah and several other selfless advocates, and also supported by the civil society, achieved several milestones for a country that is currently embroiled in many conflicts on many fronts. The most important of them are the consequences of the US-led questionable war against terrorism, followed by pressing issues of governance.
If all goes well and Justice Chaudhry and several other judges resume their duties on March 21, this would be quite unique and in sharp contrast to the past; in the previous instances, consigning dissenting judges to the dustbin of history was an automatic consequence of the coups. In the latest unprecedented episode, the rebel judges will honourably get back to their offices
The second important achievement is the successful pressure brought upon President Zardari, who had until late March 15 ruled out judges’ restoration, demonstrated political pluralism in the country, whereby lawyers, the civil society and several political parties including the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif stood united all through on a single issue i.e. restoration of judges because, as Sharif and Ahsan kept arguing, this issue symbolized the struggle between the supporters of the rule of law and an independent judiciary on the one hand, and those who dismissed this as a “petty issue being kicked up for the sake of a few individuals.”
Thirdly, an all-powerful President is likely to be an indirect casualty of the victorious march that had mobilized tens of thousands of people all over Pakistan and raised the specter of a bloody stand-off between the marchers and the administration in Islamabad. He is likely to lose some of his powers in favour of the parliament and the prime minister.
Zardari’s concession i.e. allowing the reinstatement of judges essentially means the weakening of a powerful and democratically elected president whose bid for absolute power through the direct rule in Punjab turned out to be a political death-knell for him. Within six months of his elevation to the country’s most powerful office, Zardari lost vital support both within and outside the country because of his rush for absolute power.
Fourthly, Sharif, once considered a wobbly and whimsical politician, has rehabilitated himself as a popular leader by agitating on a single-point agenda. He declared the cause of an independent judiciary as a “sacred mission so crucial for the future of Pakistan.” Sharif had returned home in November 2007 from his almost eight-year-old Saudi Arabian exile and needed a public relations exercise like the one he undertook to establish himself as a leader who wants to put “Pakistan on the path of constitutionalism and economic prosperity with sincerity and commitment.”
Fifthly, the latest conflict and its positive fall out in favour of the ousted underscores a diffusion of power centres in Pakistan’s turbulent politics; while it has taken the movement for civil liberties and constitutionalism to new levels and injected confidence nationwide. The outcome also underlined the erosion of the traditional power structures symbolized by the feudal ruling elite and conventional politicians, many of whom owed their presence and rise to the mighty military establishment.
Between Oct 1958, the first military coup, and Aug 2008, when another coup-maker resigned, three generals -- Ayub Khan (10 years), Ziaul Haq (11 years) and Pervez Musharraf (nine years) -- exemplified the autocratic rule the military establishment imposed on this country with the help of selfish and ambitious technocrats and advisors.
Each time, though, the long military rule left deep and indelible marks on the institution itself because with it came a new breed of self-serving and hypocritical breed of sycophants, mostly politicians and bureaucrats. With the passage of time the numbers of such time-servers and courtiers has also dramatically increased.
“The Soft Revolution,” as most have started calling it, hasn’t caused any major shake-up in the government. Yet, this has exposed certain faces and also underscored how disastrous can the mindless pursuit of absolute power be.
The sixth achievement of Pakistan’s struggling democracy revolves around the role of the lawyers; when the Supreme Court Bar Association, a body that represents senior advocates from all over the country, and its affiliates in the four provinces, embarked on the mission of reversing Justice Chaudhry’s suspension by General Musharraf on March 9, 2007, nobody had ever dreamed of achieving the objective. A relentless campaign at home and abroad kept the heat of the movement up and eventually the lawyers achieved that stands unparalleled in Pakistan’s history. Political support of course provided the adrenaline that they had needed.
And, lastly, the electronic media emerged as another player in the power structure. Both the government and the non-government remained under the sharp lenses of private tv channels, sort of continuous scrutiny. On-the-spot reporting, leaks from well-meaning government officials, instant analysis and dissection of impending moves and interactive programming kept the government in particular on the defensive, while the opposition and the lawyers optimally used the several tv windows available to them. Despite being on the receiving end by some of the mainstream channels, the government did not dare go beyond a brief indirect crackdown, and thus the flow of audio-video information kept pouring into households and shopping centres. Even Musharraf had tried to muzzle the electronic media after imposing emergency on Nov 3, 2007, but most of the channels were allowed back on air after a string of criticism and protests all over the country.
While March 16 may symbolize the victory for the rule of law, the long and arduous journey to constitutionalism, parliamentary supremacy, the war against radicalization, and economic progress has just begun.
The restoration offers a unique chance to all political forces to forge unity and work together to take on the pressing security and governance challenges that Pakistan currently faces.
The entire nation endured enormous pain and frustration for almost two years before the public pressure, political opposition, the army chief, and important personalities from the US and the UK all got together and eventually prevailed on a reticent president to give in and allow the prime minister prepare the ground for an epoch-making and monumental moment in Pakistan’s long journey in search of respect for the rule of law.
In fact, regardless of the pressures from various internal and external forces that compelled the government to give in to the demand of restoration, there is little doubt about the restoration being a shining tribute to a large number of lawyers, human and civil rights’ activists, trade unionists, and several political parties – all those who aspire an independent judiciary that can stand up to usurpers and set illegal and unconstitutional acts aside.
Of course, the reinstatement of Chaudhry and others goes beyond a few personalities. It is as much a rejection of illegal authoritarian actions by a controversial president as well as the vindication of the struggle that the lawyers of the country had launched against the state of emergency and its consequences. For the first time in the country’s political history, a major political party has locked itself into a moral commitment i.e. by throwing its weight behind the lawyers’ cause; the PML-N leaders have committed themselves to respecting the law and upholding the constitution and undertaken to refrain from abusing their authority.
Pakistanis at large therefore expect Nawaz Sharif and others to follow up their commitment to the Charter of Democracy and the spirit behind it. They should use the document for removing distortions from the constitution and also to invoke it for striking a balance between the powers of the Parliament and the President.
Another attendant expectation relates to the lawyers; Pakistanis hope the lawyers’ unflinching commitment to the rule of law, rejection of unconstitutional deviations and brazen use of constitutional powers would work as a continuous scrutiny of the ruling as well as opposition political parties so that they don’t astray while doing the business of politics.
The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad