Feb 28, 2009

The sound of Taliban laughing

By Irfan Husain
WHAT do we Pakistanis do when the Taliban are poised to take over large swathes of the country, and the economy is in freefall? We respond by creating a totally unnecessary political crisis that diverts attention from the real issues, and makes recovery even less likely.
The absurd situation caused by the Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate the Sharif brothers from electoral politics is bound to cause chaos in the country for weeks. How it will ultimately play out is unclear, but the fallout is going to be highly radioactive, and will last for a very long time.
Although I have seldom seen eye to eye with Nawaz Sharif in terms of politics, I do recognise that he enjoys significant support, and therefore defend his right to lead his faction of the Muslim League. His stunning showing in last year’s election had positioned him to form the next government in Islamabad, and this is one probable reason why he has been sidelined.
Most Pakistanis had welcomed the PPP–PML-N coalition formed in the aftermath of the last elections. They had hoped that this partnership between the country’s two biggest parties would bring about a broad-based government that would guarantee a measure of stability and progress in a country wracked by a year-long agitation against Musharraf.
When this unnatural alliance soon broke up, Asif Zardari was blamed for dragging his feet over the restoration of the chief justice sacked by Musharraf. But any student of power politics could have predicted this. For Zardari to bring back a contentious judge who had expressed his strong reservations about the NRO would have amounted to political suicide. This is the ordinance that had allowed Zardari to be absolved of all charges, and has now elevated him to the highest public office in the land. To assume that he would have risked all this is to take him for a political novice.
Unfortunately, the higher judiciary is seen as thoroughly politicised and, whether right or wrong, Abdul Hamid Dogar is now widely viewed as Zardari’s man, while Iftikhar Chaudhry is seen to be on Nawaz Sharif’s team. This is nothing new. For the last 50 years, Pakistan’s justice system has been hostage to politics.
In the 1990s, a succession of elected governments were sacked, and their removal upheld by the Supreme Court. Earlier, this court not only supported Zia in his coup against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but also approved the prime minister’s execution. So in this climate of deep judicial involvement with the country’s power brokers, it is understandable that we should crave for an independent judiciary that can stand up to those in authority.
However, the truth is that judicial independence is not about an individual, but about a process. The struggle to restore Iftikhar Chaudhry was part of a wider anti-Musharraf movement. Once Musharraf had been forced out, the pro-Chaudhry protests lost a lot of their steam. People like my friend Aitzaz Ahsan have argued that it is not possible to have a democratic system without a free judiciary. But equally, it is not possible to have a free judiciary without a working democracy. In a sense, this is a chicken-and-egg situation. In most modern democracies, the two have progressed side by side, each supporting and protecting the other.
It is also true that in most democracies, there is a tension between the executive and the judiciary. When courts question or strike down the government’s decisions, rulers are naturally unhappy. It is the willingness to accept these rulings that defines a true democracy. In Pakistan, we are a long way from reaching this level of tolerance. Until Iftikhar Chaudhry came along, it had been unheard of for a ‘mere’ judge to question a military dictator. This is why his rulings were like a breath of fresh air. Now that the Supreme Court has reverted to type, there is naturally a deep sense of disappointment, and the lawyers are gearing up to launch another assault on the bastion of power. Many well-meaning people are asking why Zardari does not agree to restore the judiciary i.e. Iftikhar Chaudhry, and strike down the 17th Amendment that gives him the powers Musharraf had arrogated to himself.
The reality is that few people give up power willingly, and Zardari has not got to where he is by playing softball. Pakistani politics is a blood sport, and this president knows from personal experience what it feels like to be powerless. After years of jail and exile, he is not about to put himself in a position where he and the PPP can be hounded by vengeful political opponents.
Over the last year, Zardari has played his cards very shrewdly. First, he formed a coalition, then he forced out Musharraf, and finally had himself elected president by a large majority. But achieving power is one thing; wielding it effectively is quite another. Thus far, the PPP-led coalition government has remained largely bogged down in wheeling-dealing and power struggles. Very little of substance has emerged, despite the magnitude of the problems the country faces today.
This latest ploy to oust the Sharifs will do little to restore the government’s credibility, or to improve its performance. It has lurched from one crisis to another, unable to get its act together. With months of street protests in store, the PPP will be on the defensive, especially when the nasty business of cobbling together a government in Punjab begins in earnest. The Chaudhries of the PML-Q, Musharraf’s partners-in-crime, will extract a heavy price for their support.
As somebody who has supported the PPP, a secular party that stood firm against military dictatorship, it saddens me to see it reduced to its present condition. Today, Zardari enjoys vastly more power than Benazir Bhutto did in either of her two curtailed terms as prime minister. Blowing this opportunity to do some good is little short of criminal.
The noise you might hear is the laughter of the Taliban at the sight of Pakistan’s leaders playing politics as usual. The other sounds are the chuckles at GHQ.

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