Mar 13, 2009

A soft start

The lopsided turnout has raised some important questions. In recent weeks, the political upheaval in Punjab has given the long march added impetus, but the raison d’ĂȘtre of the long march is the restoration of the deposed judges. Can the movement be judged to reflect the national opinion if it draws its support predominantly from one province? Surely not.
Without downplaying the government’s role in letting the judicial crisis fester, in the build-up to the march we have noted that there are other grave national crises confronting the state. If the lawyers and their supporters wanted to raise the stakes in pressing their demands, they should have paid heed to the need for their movement to demonstrate a national face. Otherwise they ran the risk of appearing to put their narrow interests ahead of the broader national interest.
At the very least, the leaders of the lawyers’ movement and opposition political parties should have led from the front in Karachi and Quetta. But in quasi-farce scenes played out on television yesterday, at times it appeared that the hordes of cameramen and reporters easily outnumbered the protesters they were there to cover.
Now the long march is shaping up to be a struggle that pits Punjab against the centre, with the almost inevitable result it will be seen through the political prism of a straight fight between the PPP and the PML-N. For the apolitical supporters of the principle of an independent judiciary, that will not be the outcome they could have hoped for.
On its part, the government was again guilty of overreaction and an excessive use of force. More sensible hands would have recognised that the protesters in Karachi and Quetta represented little threat and were clearly not pushing for confrontation. Instead, the scenes of scuffles and mass detentions that played out in front of the cameras have added fuel to the perception that the government is nervous and edgy and can easily be goaded into making a catastrophic mistake. What the government appears to have failed to understand is the nature of power. Electing its candidate as chairman of the Senate or having a secure majority in parliament can become irrelevant if it appears the government doesn’t believe it is in charge outside parliament.

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