Feb 28, 2009

Another nail in the coffin

By Ameer Buksh Bhutto
On Feb 25 another nail was hammered into the coffin of Pakistani democracy as the Supreme Court declared Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif ineligible to contest elections or hold public office, precipitating the fall of the Punjab government. The issue here is not just that of the Sharif brothers' eligibility to enter the corridors of power. It is the far more weighty matter of the shredding of the fabric of democracy. Let there be no mistake about it; this is no less damaging than Musharraf's coup against the judiciary in the form of his PCO of Nov 3, 2007, which made the judiciary subservient to the government and eventually resulted in his own downfall, or the pre-election deal between the People's Party and Musharraf in the form of the NRO, under which corruption and criminal conduct by pliable politicians was legalised and the failed leaders of the past were once again unleashed on the nation. The key word here is "pliable," because the NRO was applied very selectively. As a result, even those with murder cases against them, not to mention a number of corruption cases, were rinsed clean to set off in pursuit of high offices, even obstacles like minimum education requirements being swept away in the blink of an eye, whereas the Sharif brothers now stand disqualified.The clich├ęd adage that democracy is the rule of the people, by the people, for the people bears repetition here. It is the will of the people, not court verdicts, that legitimises and lends moral sanction to the exercise of political power. Musharraf's PCO, continued by the present dispensation despite Benazir Bhutto's pledge to revoke it, has politicised the judiciary and eroded the moral authority of the august institution. Besides, from the Maulvi Tamizuddin Case to the Dosso Case, the Begum Nusrat Bhutto Case and the Zafar Ali Shah Case, not to mention the perceived judicial murder of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, there is a litany of judicial letdowns of epic proportions for which the nation is still paying a heavy penalty. If the government wants to rule by the will of the courts rather than the will of the people, then what do they have to say about all these infamous decisions that are a blot on our judicial history and which the People's Party bemoans to this day? Legal systems and apparatuses are pivotal to any society, but laws can not become an impediment in the free exercise of the will of the masses. Public will must be supreme and can not be subverted. On the occasions when a law or institution clashes with the will of the people, it is invariably the public will that must prevail.If proof was required that the verdict disqualifying the Sharif brothers was a political one, it came just hours after the verdict in the form of imposition of governor's rule in Punjab for two months, following which the assembly premises were padlocked. What was the need for this? The Supreme Court only disqualified two men, not the whole Punjab provincial assembly. This forum of the people should have been allowed to elect a new leader of the house according to the rules. But this pre-emptive strike by the Aiwan-e-Sadr has proved that, along with sidelining the Sharifs, the impetus behind the disqualification verdict was to dismantle the PML-N government in Punjab. Having abandoned the people of Swat to their fate, the government has now done a hatchet job on the Punjab government. Despite futile lip service to the contrary, this government is systematically rooting out all vestiges of democracy from the country to impose its own draconian will. Now, during the course of governor's rule, we are likely to witness the worst kind of horse trading as the federal government's unelected hatchet man in Lahore sets about to secure a majority for his master in the Punjab Assembly by using the might of the state at his disposal. The People's Party has reportedly already set out to woo the party they themselves called "Qatil League." This is "reconciliation" for us.Elimination of political foes by those in power is an old abhorrent practice. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged because a superpower wanted him out of the way and also because Zia knew the consequences he would have to face if Bhutto returned to power. Benazir Bhutto was assassinated because she began to display a streak of independence, causing the powers that once supported her to lose confidence in her. Nawaz Sharif also did not fit into the mould of the present setup designed by the foreign masters who rule our destiny. He refused to distance himself from the issue of restoration of the judges, he opposed the proxy war being waged in the northern regions on their behalf and he refused to obediently continue Musharraf's policies, all of which the present government is doing unflinchingly.Cooperation with adversaries, even under the lofty banner of national interest, is just not part of our politicians' DNA. As such, the PPP-PML-N alliance was as unnatural an alliance as one could ever imagine. The two parties, or their leaders, have nothing in common. No one expected the peculiar honeymoon to last even as long as it did. What is amazing is that an experienced politician like Nawaz Sharif, who has twice been elected prime minister and Punjab chief minister, could not see all this coming and is now reduced to lamenting the stab in his back and quoting poetry.So far, this government has gone out of its way to secure its hold on power, while doing nothing at all to lift the country out of the economic and security crises it is drowning in. A dirty power game, in which all evils are regarded as fair, has come to define the limits of politics today. Some people are impressed at the wheeling and dealing by which the present rulers secured power and high office. Obtaining power is not difficult if you are willing to completely abandon all traces of principles and scruples. The real magic lies not in making shady deals to save your skin, but in achieving the desired results by taking on the forces aligned against you without sacrificing principles and dignity at the alter of expediency. Therein lies honour. If Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's legacy lives on to this day and is a source of sustenance for his far less worthy successors, it is because he faced great odds and made the ultimate sacrifice rather than prostrating himself before his enemies or opting for shady deals. But such notions of honour and principles, not to mention the princely art of statecraft and good governance, have become relics of a bygone era. Nowadays greatness is measured not by honour or moral ascendancy but by the ability to get into power, even at the sacrifice of all that is noble and honest.This verdict will cast an ominous shadow over the future. Seeds of discontent have been sown in the largest province and the government will have to face the consequences. The will of the people cannot be eclipsed by court verdicts. Is this not the argument the People's Party used in the past, claiming that they had been maligned by political opponents and that the final decision should be left in the hands of the people? The shoe is now on the other foot. The only remaining course of action, if democracy is to be salvaged, is a fresh appeal to the electorate in Punjab for a new mandate. The same also applies at the national level, if the approaching sound of long boots is to be silenced. Let the people decide.The writer is vice-chairman of the Sindh National Front.

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