Mar 18, 2009

The victory: myth, reality and the future

Pakistan won, its people won, movement politics won and principles won. New beginnings in Pakistan's politics and exercise of Executive and State authority are evident. The first-ever people's struggle for the accountability of the exercise of Executive authority, as laid out in the Constitution, succeeded. By midday on the 15th the gathering people's strength in Lahore forced a review of the government's earlier decisions to use ugly means like midnight raids, unwarranted arrests, imposition of Section 144, police barricades and container pileups to block intercity movement, large-scale arrests and even media control to prevent the long march. Clearly determined to fight back, the participants of the long march, the civilian government had requisitioned the army units in ten cities, including non-cantonment towns like Faisalabad.The government took a U-turn and actually conceded to the demand of the Long Marchers. On March 16 at daybreak around 5.49 a.m., Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani announced the restoration of the Supreme Court and High Court judges who had been fired by General Parvez Musharraf on Nov 2, 2007. Even at this early hour millions of ecstatic Pakistanis across the country glued to their television sets heard their prime minister concede hard and peacefully-earned unadulterated victory to the lawyers' movement. The two-year-old nationwide movement led by lawyers and supported by people culminated in victory. This largely urban-based movement will forever become a part of Pakistan's home-grown narrative providing optimism determination and direction to the millions in Pakistan now seeking to reform, in accordance with the Constitution, the Pakistani State, politics and society. The ebbs and flows of this lawyers-led people's struggle makes for rich political- science literature on a people-based and media-facilitated model of holding State, Executive and political authority accountable. This was Pakistan's own version of a "soft revolution." But "soft" is not sufficient in the face of Pakistan's complex and pressing challenges. A sustained, informed and focused but non-violent people-centred and media-facilitated effort is required to keep the State, Executive, Parliament and the politicians on their feet. The performance bar has to equal the confronting challenges and exercise of authority has to be allowed within the parameters of essentially the pre-Oct 12 Constitution, unless mutually agreed upon by Pakistan's parliamentary forces. Perhaps nothing in this two-year-long struggle illustrates the strength and significance of how peaceful people's power can convert into an energy that forces the hand of those in positions of authority and influence. In the case of the lawyers' movement at home the army leadership's hand was forced. Abroad the Americans had to review their own position on the lawyers' movement as a factor capable of disrupting Pakistan's stability and hence ability to participate in the "war on terror." And eventually even the President of Pakistan, with all his Constitution authority to hire and fire and with his hold as co-chairperson of the ruling party, had to accept the restoration demand of the lawyers. Behind the scenes, by March 6, concern was mounting within the Prime Minister's House and within the army leadership of the fallout of the long march. The Feb 25 Supreme Court judgment disqualifying the Sharifs and the imposition of governor's rule had come as a shock for the prime minister, given his own fence-mending attempts with the Sharifs. Docile and a bridge-builder temperamentally and a perceptive politician, Gilani was no potential Brutus for his party leader, Asif Ali Zardari. Instead, his high loyalty score earned him the Chief Executive's slot. But Zardari's political miscalculation on the lawyers' movement and on the "Punjab Operation" definitively pushed his party loyalist Gilani in a potential conflict mode with Zardari. The developments of Feb 25 gave a tremendous boost to the long march planned for March 16. They also gave the PML-N leadership the kind of following all politicians would long for. The gathering crowds at the Sharifs public meetings illustrated this. As the streets began heating up, the army leadership reached out to the president and the prime minister. Some contacts were established with PML-N second-rung leadership too. "Get back from the brink, find some settlement," was the military leadership's refrain. They had no made-in-GHQ proposal they handed to the president or the prime minister. With growing show of street support for the Sharifs there was growing concern in the GHQ. Like all other Pakistanis they too were worried about the fallout of a clash between the Long Marchers and the law-enforcing agencies. The army too could have been a potential force fighting the crowds. Nothing could have been a greater nightmare for an army stuck in combat and chaos in FATA and Swat. Between March 6 and March 14 there was frequent shuttling and phone call exchanges between the Presidency, the Prime Minister's House and important men from the Khaki. Their principal refrain was "avoid the confrontation." The Presidency, supported by the president's own men, was convinced of political victory in Punjab and a stillborn long march. The long march was a "media march," many from the president's camp had claimed. As Nawaz Sharif's street following became evident closer to March 10 the shuttling of the US ambassador and calls from Washington too began focusing on avoiding the March 16 confrontation. The Americans who reportedly earlier would ask perceptive Islamabad-based politicians what if the president fires Gilani and that Nawaz Sharif doesn't have too much street support, were concerned about imminent violence on the streets of Pakistan. Washington, like the GHQ, had no prescriptions. As the D-Day approached they had recognised that the only solution was what the two years of determined and unshakable struggle of the lawyers had spelled out -- restoration of the Nov 2, 2007, judiciary. Also, the reversal of the failed Punjab Operation began being discussed. The federal government, the provincial governor and key members of the PML-Q leadership were unable to either break the PML-N's own Punjab Assembly members nor those from the PML-Q forward block. The Presidency was unrelenting on the restoration. However, other formulas, including the minus-one formula for restoration, began to be discussed. By March 13 the prime minister and some political men tried to work out a face-saver for all. It included reversal in Punjab to the Feb 25 position, disqualification to be quashed through government petition with the government filing the review petition, resolution of the judges' issue under Charter of Democracy guideline, Justice Dogar not to be given any extension and until modalities of restoration are worked out the senior-most judge, Justice Raza Khan, be appointed chief justice. On the night of the 14th, night the prime minister called PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif to share this formula and to get the PML-N on board. Nothing short of what the lawyers' demand and the PML-N's public commitment -- restoration through Executive Order of the judges -- he was told. Alongside this effort a senior PPP minister approached a senior PML-N leader asking to go visit the deposed chief justice and request him to agree to resign soon after he is reinstated. Whatever a section of the PPP leadership and cabinet ministers may now claim generally clashes with the known facts on the government's response to the lawyers' movement and to its demands. Finally, the PPP government was left with no choice but to concede the demands of the lawyers when on the morning of March 15 people began gathering around the Lahore High Court and the GPO area. The cycle of resistance-repression-resistance was set in motion as the government fired tear gas shells and lathi-charged the crowds. And once PML leader Mian Nawaz Sharif broke the police barricades and left his home to lead the protesting crowds, the endgame had begun. By late evening, the prime minister and the army chief talked on the phone. The government had no option but to respond to the lawyers' demands. The crowds headed towards Islamabad removing heavy containers as they headed towards Islamabad would be unstoppable. The army and the law enforcement agencies were in no mood to attack or battle the crowds. The people of Pakistan had spoken. It was curtains. The reluctant government had to respond. People's demand for rule of law could have only been ignored at the cost of a large-scale rebellion and mayhem. So it wasn't. Power necessarily militates towards concentration and unaccountability. In future this instinct of power will always be checked by a peaceful people's force and, hopefully, by chastened politicians. Pakistan Zindabad!Nasim Zehra
The writer is an Islamabad-based security analyst

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