Mar 17, 2009

Victory for democracy

This is no ordinary event, and the term ‘mind-boggling’ describes it best. It took place after a sea of highly charged people — lawyers, civil society, political activists — began to march towards Islamabad. After a pitched battle between the police and the people in Lahore it became clear that the power wielded by PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif, who was en route to Islamabad before the government’s change of heart persuaded him to call off the long march, could not be resisted.
Wisely, the authorities did not open fire and there was nothing which could stop the people from removing the almost impregnable barriers erected by the administration. Undoubtedly, domestic and external pressure played a crucial role in the momentous decision to restore the chief justice and the others who were illegally removed and to lift Section 144.
Meanwhile, earlier on, the government said it would file a judicial review of the Supreme Court verdict disqualifying the Sharif brothers from holding public office. Indeed, a revolution has come about. But what are the implications of this event and what have the consequences been?
First, it has proved that dictatorships can be resisted by public power. In a truly democratic country, this power is expressed through the ballot but in many developing countries the trappings of democracy are merely that — trappings. Then the people have to come out on the streets and force a change. In Pakistan, this has happened in 1968-69, 1977 and from 2007 onwards. In the previous two instances, the public sentiment was used by two military dictators. Only in this instance a miracle has occurred: an intransigent presidency has yielded to public power.
Democratic forces appear to have won. Such forces are not produced easily. We have seen how lawyers were beaten up and how many suffered a loss in income; how Aitzaz Ahsan and Ali Ahmad Kurd were jailed and harassed; and how the black coats marched almost every week during the Musharraf days and organised two long marches in 2008 and now in 2009.
But the lawyers alone might not have pulled it off. Along with them were members of civil society and students. We have seen how Tahira Abdullah was arrested and how genuine her anguish was that the PPP, a liberal party, should now adopt the repressive ways of military rulers. We saw students ordered to vacate their hostels on Saturday to pre-empt their joining the long march. Many found they had nowhere to go. Meanwhile, there were political parties to bring thousands of people out on the streets.
Additionally, there were people like Sherry Rehman and Raza Rabbani whose resignations raised the morale of the democratic forces. The significance of the restoration is not only that democratic forces and politicians who appear to have supported a principled stand have won. It is also that the principle of defying dictators has got a great boost. In our judicial history, Justice Munir did not stand up to the establishment creating a tradition that judges bow to the coercive powers of the state. But in 2007, unexpectedly a judge did defy a general and was thrown out and treated most shabbily. He was restored, not once but twice.
This principle may not have been established because it takes more than one person to establish a principle but it has won out at least once. In countries like Pakistan, where cynicism abounds and principles are ridiculed, this is just the kind of antidote required to give the people confidence in their own power.
There are three negative consequences also. First, the army chief who had never openly been a part of the political process was in the headlines. As civilian politicians appear to have made a mess of their mandate, the army has been strengthened in subtle ways, a development that does not bode well for our fledgling democracy in the long run. Also, the interference of foreign diplomats, even though for a good purpose, goes back to a tradition of which we should be wary. Independent countries solve their problems themselves and do not allow things to come to such a pass that foreigners feel they have to interfere.
Secondly, this has strengthened the PML-N and the religious parties at the expense of the PPP. This is not a development which liberals can welcome, though of course it has been brought on by the PPP leadership itself. However, if the PPP does deliver good governance for the next four years this setback will not affect it as much as more intransigence and the failure to live up to its promises would. Therefore, even for the PPP, this is a good decision.
Thirdly, it has also become clear that our rulers do not listen to anything but force and the threat of force. This is nothing new and it is universal. The British left India only when they were sure that the violence would spiral out of control and they would be killed in their beds. They were wiser than the French who actually imposed a brutal war on the Algerians before they were beaten out.
The Shah of Iran also left after he realised that bullets and corpses could not control the people. In recent history, the Philippines have often seen people deciding the future of the country on the streets. But the fact that the people are forced to take to the streets indicates the dictatorial attitudes of the rulers. Had the chief justice been restored in March 2008 and Shahbaz Sharif’s government not been destabilised last month, there would have been no movement on the streets at all.
Look at the amount of money saved; the amount of energy saved; the number of lives not blighted by jail sentences; and the number of people saved from humiliation and resignations. But then, would this be a developing country? By Dr Tariq Rahman

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