Mar 19, 2009

Democracy and its enemies

The ides of March have dealt the Zardari administration a crippling blow, not just on the judges' issue but also on the fiasco in Punjab. The fact that nothing can stand in the way of the people once again stands emphatically proven. The People's Party is now tripping over itself to claim credit for the restoration of the judges, saying that its government was fulfilling its promise to the nation, but it is too late for such claims. The judges were restored as a direct result of the irresistible display of public strength, not by the largesse of the People's Party. Zardari had already declared on television that he had no mandate from the people to restore the judges, and resisted doing so for almost a year. Also, many People's Party leaders were recklessly predicting that the long march would fail and were ruthless in their attacks on the deposed chief justice and his supporters. For how long did they insist that the judges cannot be restored by executive order? After ordering a crackdown on the long-marchers, leading to thousands of arrests, baton charges and use of tear gas, how can they now claim credit for the restoration of the judiciary, as if this was done under their own initiative?Democratic systems are sometimes identified by the noise and chaos that usually characterises the expression of this will, but there is method in this madness and only it can dispense political legitimacy. It unleashes creative forces that are vital for the linear development of legal, political and social systems and institutions. Anti-democratic forces too have a spirit that is recognisable by its propensity to stifle and smother the public will. It encourages the misuse of laws, like Section 144, and it drives regimes to restrict the media to conceal ugly realities from the people. Such measures reek of fear and desperation and are the last refuge of dictators.This government has amply illustrated which side of the divide it stands on. The crackdown it ordered on the long march was reminiscent of the darkest days of martial law. How can a nation be stopped when it is mobilised? To give the masses cause for protest by continuing Musharraf's laws and policies is bad enough, but to try to stop them from expressing their will by use of force only compounds the error, and borders on insanity. Even Musharraf had the elementary common sense to allow the long march to proceed. Though a head-on collision with the masses was avoided in the nick of time, how can this government still claim to be an awami government when it follows a path that conflicts with the aspirations of the people? People are the real masters in democracy, not politicians, and the role of the people is not limited to casting votes. The continued sanction of public will is a sine qua non for political legitimacy which this government has clearly lost. Taking on the people in defiance of this fundamental principle is to declare yourself free from and above all accepted norms and constraints of democratic conduct.The People's Party once produced statesmen. The new party leadership has dragged the calibre down to such a level that it is now synonymous with deceit and a total abandonment of principles. They are well on their way to achieving something that even Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf failed to achieve--i.e., tarnish the political ascendancy of the party that the blood of the Shaheeds gave it. This new People's Party is not the party of Shaheeds but the party of oppression, political arrests, baton charges, tear gas and governor's rule. It suffers from a massive credibility crisis as no one is prepared to believe the party leader after he himself announced that his oaths and commitments should not be taken seriously. The ban on Geo Television has placed this government in closer ideological proximity to the Zia and Musharraf juntas than a representative democratic government. Has President Barak Obama banned Fox News for being a thorn in his side? Despite being the most powerful man on earth, he dare not trifle with the freedom of the press and media. The same goes for Tony Blaire, who had to tolerate jibes by the media that were often highly personal in nature. But the Zardari administration could not put up with Geo's airing of Benazir Bhutto's speeches that showed the world how far this government, which came into being in her name, has strayed from her mission.Benazir had invited the International Republican Institute to come to Pakistan to expose Musharraf's unpopularity by means of public surveys and opinion polls. But now, since Zardari has donned Musharraf's mantle, the IRI's surveys are no longer tolerable and it has been asked to pack up and get out of Pakistan. What remains in this new People's Party that might justify its claim to be running a democratic government? Indeed, what remains in it that makes it recognisable as the party created by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and inherited by Benazir Bhutto? Even the man on whose complaint Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged reportedly warrants a phone call of thanks from the party leader for his part in the Sharifs' disqualification case. The timid silence of other People's Party leaders, some of whom are men of political and social standing, is very sad. Hats off to Sherry Rehman for doing the right thing. But the others continue to stomach the stench just to keep their cushy jobs. What happened to all that grief-stricken chest beating of a year ago and their professed loyalty to Benazir Bhutto, in whose name they are enjoying the perks of power, but whose murder seems to have been forgiven and forgotten for the sake of power?The question arises that with the nation aligned against it, on whose strength did the government hold out for so long before restoring the judges? The frantic diplomatic activity we witnessed in the run-up to the long march, with US ambassador Anne Patterson, White House special envoy Richard Hallbrooke, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British foreign secretary David Milliband interceding in person and on the telephone between Zardari, Gillani and the Sharifs, provides a hint to the answer to this question. There is no getting away from the reality that Pakistan is of pivotal geo-political significance to the global interests of western powers, particularly with reference to their so-called war on terror. The influence they exert to achieve their ends permeates deep into the domestic affairs of Pakistan. The exercise of such influence has stunted the growth of viable legal and political institutions and systems which can be neither effective nor durable unless they are allowed to pass through natural rigors in order to mature. Western powers prefer to establish relations with pliable regimes rather than earn the respect and support of the people. In this, some of our politicians are eager accomplices for the sake of even short-lived power.The restoration of the judges is the greatest victory for the masses in Pakistan since the popular uprising against Ayub and Yahya. But it is not enough. The surgical knife must plunge deeper to cut away every trace of the malignancy that afflicts the country. It is time for the government, or at least Zardari, along with his motley gang of advisors, to go. Whereas the people of Pakistan gave a clear illustration of their feelings for him in the long march, by now even his western benefactors must have realised the futility of vesting any hopes in him.The gruesome spectacle that the nation witnessed on television in recent days, in which the Constitution and state institutions were subjected to one man's whims, cannot be just swept under the rug and forgotten as if nothing had happened. Responsible people have to be held accountable. Heads must roll. In genuine democracies, governments have been known to fall on far lesser grounds than this. But we all know that resigning on matters of principles is a concept totally alien to most Pakistani politicians. Will it take another long march to make them see the writing on the wall?By Ameer Bhutto

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