Feb 28, 2009

Directionless democracy

Rahimullah Yusufzai
The inevitable has happened and the battle lines between the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz have been drawn. Perhaps it was still possible for the two major political parties of the country to co-exist in a spirit of democracy but the Supreme Court of Pakistan through its controversial verdict played the role of a spoiler. By reaffirming an earlier court decision that the Sharif brothers were ineligible to hold an elected office due to their conviction in politically motivated cases dating to the era of military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's apex court not only defied the public mandate enjoyed by Nawaz Sharif, arguably the most popular politician in the country today, and the democratically elected Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif but also plunged the country into a crisis. The Supreme Court verdict will be widely debated. In fact, the debate has begun even before the detailed judgement is out and the reaction both by the lawyers and the people has been overwhelmingly critical. One point of the debate is whether the courts should pass judgement on issues of political nature or of great national importance. The judges who passed the judgement and those occupying seats in the Supreme Court and the four high courts were already being viewed negatively. The verdict against the Sharifs will further antagonize the lawyers and majority of the general public toward the so-called "PCO judges." The standoff between the protesting lawyers and the superior court judges headed by Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar will intensify. And so will the political confrontation across the country, particularly in the Punjab. Perhaps all this was avoidable. The Supreme Court could have avoided hearing the case and passing on its judgement. It would and should have known that its judgement would be unacceptable to most Pakistanis on account of the controversial standing of the judges on the bench. The judges must have known the political consequences of their verdict and the harm it could do to the country and its institutions. There was a need to rise above self and set aside all petty considerations while passing the judgement. As this wasn't done, there are bound to be allegations that the court's verdict was influenced by the PPP-led ruling coalition at the centre. Predictably, President Asif Ali Zardari is being portrayed as the villain of the piece and the ire of Nawaz Sharif and his party leaders is understandably directed against him. The buck stops at him as he takes all the decisions as the President and the PPP head. And on account of his past reputation and lack of credibility, there won't be many who would believe him if he tried to absolve himself of responsibility for the mess that is now haunting the country. By imposing governor's rule in Punjab, which is the stronghold of the Sharif brothers and the PML-N, President Zardari has provided ammunition to his opponents to take aim at him. It is obvious that he didn't have much of an option than to bring Punjab under Governor's Rule after the disqualification of Shahbaz Sharif to hold office as the chief minister. But the fact that the province has been handed over to Governor Salman Taseer, who like President Zardari still wants to be known as a PPP member, would prompt the anti-PPP camp and neutral observers to conclude that Salman Taseer's surprise appointment to the gubernatorial position was part of the original plan to eventually oust the PML-N government in Punjab and install one headed by the PPP in its place. After having installed Salman Taseer as the Punjab governor last year, Mr Zardari in an emotional outburst at the Governor House Lahore had publicly declared that his next move would be to put a jiyala into the Presidency at Islamabad. He fulfilled the promise by ensuring his own election as the President of Pakistan and by refusing to give up his membership of the PPP. It would be hard to expect non-partisanship in the country's political affairs from a president and the governor of Punjab who are still PPP card members and from the Sindh Governor Ishratul Ibad Khan, who is a senior member of the MQM and accountable to his party boss Altaf Hussain and nobody else. If the growing political crisis persists, President Zardari and his allies would be required to do unsavoury things to remain in power. There would be horse-trading to win a majority in Punjab by triggering defections from PML-N and other parties and by putting into place a large and unwieldy cabinet. Political victimization reminiscent of the old times could happen. There would be deal-making with other centres of power including the judiciary and the armed forces. The big loser would be democracy and the people of Pakistan who had voted democratic parties into power and rejected the pro-Musharraf forces in the February 2008 general elections in the hope of putting the past behind them and welcoming the dawn of a new era. A weak and vulnerable coalition government comprising parties with diverse political agenda at the centre and the large coalition governments in the provinces would neither have cohesion nor direction. Their top priority would be survival instead of doing anything meaningful for the country or the people. Such a directionless federal government would be exploited by all and sundry, including the militants, and increasingly dependent on the support of the military to stay in power. It would also be vulnerable to pressure from outside by the US and its western allies as well as India and others. If all this is going to happen to Pakistan and its citizens in the coming weeks and months, the Supreme Court would have to share the major blame for hastening the onset of such a dire situation. By agreeing to take orders from President General Musharraf and accept oath under the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO), the judges gave priority to keeping their prized jobs and foregoing the right to earn respect from majority of Pakistanis. Those who chose the second path became instant heroes and earned the gratitude of their grateful nation. But most in the second category fell by the way and are now part of the existing judiciary. The few led by deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry still fighting for the cause of an independent judiciary and rule of law continue to enjoy mass popularity. By identifying with this cause and a few other principled causes, including limiting the military's role in politics and guarding national sovereignty in the face of brazen interference in Pakistan's affairs by outside powers, Nawaz Sharif has broadened his support base and presented his party as a better alternative to the PPP. It is sad that a party of the masses such as the PPP has now chosen to be the defender of the status quo while Nawaz Sharif, who launched his political career as the child of the military establishment, has become the voice of the campaign for change. And nobody would be blamed more for damaging Pakistan's biggest political party than Mr Zardari, often referred to as someone who accidentally became leader of the PPP after the tragic assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, and then went on to become the President of Pakistan.The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar

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