Scenes of lawyers and political workers being dragged and thrashed before being thrown into waiting police vehicles are now a common sight on the streets of Pakistan and in the print and electronic media. This was to be expected once the PPP-led government decided to block the long march on Islamabad. The countrywide crackdown has already netted hundreds of peaceful protesters and the numbers would rise in the coming days and weeks.
Pakistan has once again been pushed into political turmoil due to the inability of its politicians to place national interest above their personal and party motives. A year after the February 2008 general elections, our long-suffering nation is wondering what to expect next after realising that their hopes for a better future have already been dashed to the ground. The democratic set-up was supposed to last five years until 2013 but it is floundering in the beginning of 2009.
Under the stewardship of President Asif Ali Zardari, the federal government not only acted harshly against the long marchers itself but it also forced the provincial governments in Sindh, Punjab and NWFP to deal effectively with the agitators. Despite assurances, the ANP-PPP coalition government in NWFP buckled under pressure from the centre and ordered arrest of lawyers and political activists to stop them for proceeding to Islamabad. It also imposed section 144 in most districts of the province to prevent political gatherings. Though the leaders of the ANP, which dominates the coalition government in the province, are crying foul and accusing the so-called 'establishment' of ordering the crackdown on protesters, this is unlikely to convince the opposition parties and critics. The ANP could have resisted the federal government's orders for the sake of its image as a democratic party. In fact, the ANP leadership is bound to come under criticism for failing to honour its promise not to arrest lawyers and political workers exercising their right to peaceful protest in a democratic set-up. There could even be allegations of 'noora-kushti,' the colourful Urdu expression for feigning to fight a rival but in reality doing quite the opposite.
At a time when even women and aged protesters have been roughed up by brutal cops and plain-clothed intelligence agents, the only provincial government that refrained from using strong-arm methods while tackling the long marchers was the one in Balochistan. Though the coalition government in Quetta is led by the PPP, it adopted a sensible and democratic course by not making any effort to stop the lawyers and political workers as they launched their long march from Quetta towards Jacobabad on the border with Sindh. Perhaps this was due to its make-up as a conglomeration of political parties with diverse agendas that the ruling coalition was unable to agree on a strategy similar to the one adopted by the federal government to tackle the protesters. It is also worth noting that Balochistan Chief Minister Nawab Aslam Raisani despite his association with the PPP had opposed the imposition of governor's rule in Punjab and unsuccessfully tried to play the role of mediator between President Zardari and Mian Nawaz Sharif.
As expected, the PPP-MQM coalition government in Sindh stopped the marchers at Jacobabad and refused them entry for proceeding towards Punjab on the way to Islamabad. Among the marchers who were turned back was Ali Ahmad Kurd, the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and the leader of the long march for the independence of the judiciary and reinstatement of the deposed chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, and other superior court judges. The Sindh government also blocked another group of marchers leaving Karachi for Islamabad and ordered arrest of scores of leaders of lawyers and political parties. The overzealous attitude of the Sindh government in foiling the long march was understandable as both the PPP and the MQM, along with their minor coalition partners in the province, including the PML-F and the ANP, stand to lose if the existing power set-up is disturbed or Iftikhar Chaudhry is restored to his rightful position as the chief justice of Pakistan. The MQM in particular had played the main role in opposing the lawyers' movement during the rule of its biggest patron, former president General Pervez Musharraf. Earlier, it had teamed up with the then king's party, the PML-Q, to block the lawyers' agitation but now it is an ally of the ruling PPP. The partners have changed but the agenda is the same and that is to keep out the independent-minded judges who could block their way and stop them from enjoying unfettered powers.
The government will be mistaken if it believes that administrative measures would put down the protests that are now taking place all over the country. The problems are political and would have to be resolved politically. The cause of the lawyers' movement has caught the imagination of most Pakistanis as past and recent public opinion surveys have shown. It is amazing that deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry continues to enjoy popularity more than a year after his ouster by the then military ruler, General Musharraf, and despite the fact that the people have other major worries like lawlessness, inflation, unemployment and militancy.
It is true that Punjab as the stronghold of the PML-N and the Sharif brothers is experiencing more protests and action but this shouldn't be interpreted as a sign that people in other provinces are unconcerned about the dangerous situation now obtaining in Pakistan. Most Pakistanis blame the Zardari-led ruling elite for the crisis and, as a consequence, sympathise with all those who are challenging the status quo. In fact, the independence of the judiciary, the rule of law, good governance and merit-based appointments of judges and civil service officers are cherished goals for an overwhelming majority of the population and anyone resisting these objectives risks becoming a disliked figure. Mr Zardari too has fallen into this category after having partially cleansed his image by spending more than eight years in jail. Lacking credibility and adept at making and breaking promises, he is no longer trusted by political allies-turned-foes such as Nawaz Sharif. One major reason for the failure of the mediation efforts by Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Asfandyar Wali Khan to resolve the present political crisis was the refusal of the Nawaz Sharif camp to believe the fresh promises being made by Mr Zardari. It was a case of once bitten, twice shy. And thus like Musharraf before him, President Zardari has quickly become the main target of a protest campaign that is gathering steam.
The other big losers of the ongoing political wrangling are the judges who sit in judgement in the superior courts. By offering a favourable court judgement to the Sharif brothers as part of a political deal in the case regarding their eligibility to hold public office, President Zardari exposed the vulnerability of the judges to pressure from the executive. By opposing the disqualification of the Sharif brothers at the hands of the three-member Supreme Court bench, most Pakistanis surveyed by Gallup recently made it clear that they have no trust in the judges who took oath under General Musharraf's PCO or were inducted subsequently in the superior courts primarily due to their political affiliation with the PPP or other ruling parties. The lack of confidence in these judges was reinforced following the imposition of governor's rule by President Zardari consequent to the Abdul Hameed Dogar-headed Supreme Court verdict disqualifying Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif. It looked as if the judges were a party in the game to oust Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and the PML-N government in Punjab and install in its place one led by the PPP. The haste with which scores of new judges, many among them PPP loyalists, were appointed to the Sindh High Court, the Lahore High Court and the Islamabad High Court was further confirmation of the suspicion that President Zardari was out to further politicise the judiciary and strengthen his planks to offset any legal and political challenge to his rule. The stakes are thus high because the lawyers' movement, backed by the PML-N and other opposition parties, now embodies the wishes of all those Pakistanis, and they are in the majority, who want their judges to be independent rather than being loyalists of one or the other political party. This movement also concerns the ideals of having the rule of law, good governance, observance of democratic principles and upholding Pakistan's sovereignty. No doubt it is a tall order but all mass-based movements aim for high ideals.