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A path through danger

Tuesday 24 March 2009, by Asma Jahangir

The heart of Pakistan’s crisis is arbitrary power. The solution is a democratic system founded on the rule of law, says Asma Jahangir.

Pakistan has in the last two years been living through some of the worst moments of its history - as well as its most promising. The relentless violence, assassinations, mass arrests, the imposition of emergency rule and rising militancy have been devastating for the country. At the same time, the people’s resistance to authoritarianism, their rejection through the ballot-box of political forces aligned to the military, and their opposition to undemocratic moves by the civilian government are hopeful signs for democracy.

The extraordinary story of what has happened in the 2007-09 period suggests that the intersection of these trends leaves Pakistan now poised between two very different possible futures.

The inside track

The oppressive regime of General Pervez Musharraf, who had seized power in October 1999, appeared at the start of 2007 to be well entrenched. There was great social discontent, and many Pakistanis were in despair. Then on 9 March 2007 the general-president unceremoniously removed from office Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, the chief justice of Pakistan. This sacking of a popular and independent figure provoked a spontaneous rebellion by the legal fraternity, enthusiastically backed by many sections of society. The army and the president were unprepared for this widespread movement against the military regime. They assumed that as so often before the government would control the situation in characteristic fashion: by brute power or worse (as when political leaders in Balochistan had been hunted down and killed). They also expected that the George W Bush administration would find some way of rescuing Pervez Musharraf.

To an extent, an attempt was made to do precisely that. A plan was hatched in Washington and London to cobble together an alliance between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto (the exiled leader of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party [PPP]) - that, it was hoped, might defuse the situation. It was a classic "fix" by the foreign allies and spin-masters of the Pakistani state and Bhutto alike, who in their wisdom had carved out a clean and convenient formula of military-civilian partnership to take forward the "war on terror".

Such plans have a way in Pakistan of being sabotaged by their supposed beneficiaries. In this case, Musharraf did not relent from his authoritarian path, even as he promised fair and free parliamentary elections. He was given another five-year presidential term by national and provincial assemblies on 6 October 2007, then imposed a state of "emergency plus" on 3 November. This compelled Benazir Bhutto to turn to other political forces and Pakistani civil society for support, dismaying those in the west who had promoted her inside track to power. Alas, the process in any case took a violent turn when Benazir Bhutto, two months after her return from exile, was tragically assassinated on 27 December 2007 at a campaign rally. The perpetrators - again, as so often in Pakistan - have so far evaded arrest and justice.

The politics of control

Amid spiralling violence in early 2008, Islamic militants were able to capture the tribal areas of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and other parts of the province too. A combination of financial crisis and energy shortages further worsened the situation. The election, postponed after Benazir Bhutto’s death, was held on 18 February 2008, with the PPP winning a larger number of seats than the other main opposition party, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML [N)]). The return of democracy - marked by a short-lived coalition between the PPP and PML (N), which broke up on 25 August - placed great pressure on Musharraf. He resigned the presidency of Pakistan on 18 August, to be replaced on 6 September by Benazir’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari. Musharraf followed by transferring the leadership of the army to General Ashfaq Kayani on 28 November 2007.

Asif Ali Zardari, the new president, had never been popular among Pakistanis, but was tolerated as an alternative to military rule. He had cleverly used the slogan of national reconciliation to sneak his way into becoming head of state, and once there went back on all the public promises he had made of restoring all the judges and respecting the supremacy of parliament. The much promised "national reconciliation" gave way to nepotism and intrigue.

In these circumstances, the unity and morale of the lawyers’ movement that had demanded the rule of law and energised the public were damaged when a number of deposed judges conditionally agreed to rejoin the judiciary at the PPP’s invitation. Some lawyers were tempted - and bought - by offers of promotion.

The effect of the election had been to focus energy on the high-level political process and away from civil society. But the passing of the presidency to Asif Ali Zardari did not change the fact that the judiciary remained weak and corrupt, and delivered its judgments at the bidding of the head of state. This politicisation of the judiciary again became a key issue when Pakistan’s supreme court passed an order disqualifying from office Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, Zardari’s main opponents who were in power in the largest province of the country (Punjab).

On 25 February 2009, as soon as the judgment was made, the president imposed "governor rule" in Punjab and the doors of the provincial parliament were locked so that it could not meet to elect its leader. Moreover, decrees were issued granting amnesty to those accused of corruption and other charges.

The triumphal march

The lawyers had already announced a "long march" to the capital, Islamabad - a last desperate attempt to stage a sit-in outside of parliament until the judges (especially the deposed Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry) were restored. Now they had the backing of the second largest political party in the country, as well as of thousands of outraged citizens who believed that their new president had gone too far.

The government overreacted to the long march. It was a reminder of the Musharraf days and their destructive legacy. The security forces confiscated lorries carrying goods in order to block roads and barricade the capital. Several lawyers and political activists were arrested, beaten, threatened, and locked in their houses. Despite this, more and more people defied the curbs placed on their movement, gathering in Lahore to move on to Islamabad.

As a last resort, the infamous interior ministry warned people that militants were planning an imminent bomb-attack and therefore the long march should be abandoned. But the people called this bluff and joined the march in Lahore. An estimated one million people were on the roads.

The merciless beatings and use of tear-gas did not deter the crowds. Eventually the police chief gave up and Islamabad panicked. The prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and the army chief, with the support of foreign diplomats, won agreement from the president to restore the chief justice and find a way to settle the Punjab dispute.

Thus, in the early hours of 16 March, the prime minister addressed the nation and announced that the demands of the marchers had been accepted, including (with effect from 21 March) the restoration of Chaudhry to his post. The long march - and Pakistani civil society more widely - had won a great victory over arbitrary power.

The top-down failure

But this is far from the end. The president is still in power and retains his capacity to foment trouble. Even as the people’s (and the opposition’s) victory was being celebrated, the presidency was manoeuvring to keep the elected government of Punjab out in the cold, in part by approaching judges who could be "persuaded" to make the right decisions. A meeting between the prime minister and Nawaz Sharif may lead to the restoration of the Punjab government, though this will be only one concession among many infractions.

The way the president exercises power invites a dangerous intervention by the military. It also shifts the focus of governance away from far more pressing issues such as the spread of militancy. Even as the crisis over the judiciary and the rule of law has escalated in Pakistan, Islamic militants in other parts of the country have set up their own lawyer-free judicial system. It perpetrates rough and easy justice, among other things pushing back women behind four walls. The chief justice may have resumed work but the judicial system in Swat and Malakand (to name only those) has been hijacked by religious zealots.

These two years have been tumultuous. Pakistan’s leaders, and their foreign allies, have thought that they could impose top-down solutions and thus secure power and subdue the Pakistani people. The people have proved them wrong. But the crises afflicting the country remain. Pakistan has a long way to go before it can claim to have established a decent democratic system founded on respect for the rule of law.

Asma Jahangir is a human-rights lawyer and co-founder of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission. She has been Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights since 1998.

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