Mar 9, 2009

The way forward

Asif Ezdi
The decision of the PCO judges to disqualify Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif from holding elected office had been on the cards for quite some time. Characteristically, Zardari tried to use this issue to extract concessions from the PML-N leadership on their demand for a restoration of the judiciary. There is no reason to doubt the statement made by Nawaz Sharif that at a meeting with Shahbaz Sharif on 23 January, Zardari offered to make a deal: a favourable decision by the court in return for support in giving an extension in the term of office of Dogar. After this offer was turned down by Nawaz Sharif, it was only a question of time when the Sharif brothers would be disqualified.The timing was eventually dictated by the announcement made by PML-N on 20 February, after a lot of dithering, to join the lawyers' movement in their long march and sit-in. Zardari evidently decided that it would be unwise to leave the Punjab government in the hands of Shahbaz Sharif at such a crucial time. On 24 February, Zardari returned from China and the next day our "independent" PCO judges duly announced their decision to disqualify the Sharif brothers. Not surprisingly, Zardari's spokesmen have been claiming that the decision was taken by an independent judiciary and was in no way influenced by the government. The PPP Co-Chairman himself makes this outrageous claim in his article in the Wall Street Journal (4 March 2009), in which he also laments that unlike the US Democratic Party, which accepted the US Supreme Court decision in favour of Bush in the 2000 presidential election, the Pakistani opposition has not been respecting the decisions of the Pakistan Supreme Court. Zardari of course did not tell his readers that the court which disqualified the Sharif brothers is composed largely of judges who reneged on their oath of loyalty to the Constitution and swore instead to uphold the PCO, while the rest of them were handpicked by Zardari himself for their dependability. The reaction that the disqualification of the Sharif brothers has provoked in the country has been according to expectations. The popular protest has been confined largely to Punjab and has been on a scale that can be controlled without much difficulty. The smaller political parties in the ruling coalition have gone through the motions of expressing their disappointment at the disqualification decision but have not put the PPP leadership under any pressure to reverse it. The major immediate headache for Zardari has been not the public reaction to the disqualification but the inability of the PPP so far to forge a majority in the Punjab Provincial Assembly. Salman Taseer, who was given this task by Zardari, has not been able to deliver on the promise he made two weeks earlier that a PPP Government would be in office soon. The PPP-PML-Q coalition that he had planned has not been formed yet, because PML-Q has been sitting on the fence, not quite sure which of the two sides, PPP or PML-N, would emerge as the winner. Zardari has come under some pressure from his mentors in Washington who are concerned that the political crisis triggered by the disqualification decision will distract the government from the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Americans are also worried that if the crisis gets prolonged, it could threaten Zardari's hold on power. To save the Zardari government from a train wreck, they would like him to make concessions to PML-N.Zardari is now prepared for a package that would remove the election bar on the Sharif brothers through a constitutional amendment and restore the PML-N/PPP coalition in Punjab, in return for constitutional protection for NRO. This offer is understood to have been conveyed to Shahbaz by Raisani on behalf of Zardari. If NRO is given protection and the graduation condition for holding elected office – which has been "invalidated" by the PCO judges but not repealed by the legislature – is removed, Zardari might even accept a return of Iftikhar Chaudhry and a partial repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment. There are some in PML-N, like Shahbaz Sharif, who would be tempted to reach a settlement on these lines. After all, the party gave up its opposition to NRO long ago. It is only after the disqualification decision that Nawaz Sharif has started attacking this Ordinance – which shows that PML-N's position is by no means as principled as it claims. The stand of the other opposition parties on the NRO question has also been similarly ambivalent. The plain fact is that the future of the country has been made hostage to the NRO. This reprehensible law, whose original purpose was to pave the way for power-sharing between Musharraf and PPP, was concocted with Washington's blessing behind the back of the Pakistani people and cheats them of the billions looted by their "representatives" and some powerful bureaucrats. It virtually places the rich and powerful above the law. They are not only exempted from criminal prosecution but are also free to retain their ill-gotten gains and to continue to plunder the nation.To allow such a law to remain on the statute book would be a permanent stigma on the face of Pakistan. Our Western "friends" who are so fond of lecturing us on the virtues of good governance would never have such a law in their own countries but are quite prepared to support it in Pakistan if it helps keep their favourite, Asif Ali Zardari, in power. Nawaz Sharif should keep in mind that if he now agrees to give constitutional protection to NRO, he will not be forgiven by the nation or by history. Even without the parliamentary validation of NRO, its beneficiaries strut about as if they owned this country. Imagine what they would do to Pakistan if the NRO was given constitutional protection. Since November 2008, the civil society has rallied around the single demand for the restoration of the judiciary. They and the lawyers' movement must now demand also the annulment of NRO. This ordinance forms the keystone of the present corrupt and cankerous political structure. Once the NRO goes – and only if the NRO goes – will the country be able to march forward.The military dictators who have ruled the country for half of the nation's history since independence bear the lion's share of the responsibility, together with our corrupt and decadent political class, for Pakistan's misfortunes. The present political mess is largely the legacy of eight years of Musharraf dictatorship. There are some who had hoped that the prime minister would pull the country out of the quagmire in which it is stuck. But Gilani clearly lacks the stature and the backbone. He may be well-intentioned but he is also ineffective. He has not been in the loop on major political decisions taken by Zardari and his small coterie of close friends. Gilani even seems to have been surprised by the disqualification decision of the PCO judges. He subsequently advised Zardari to impose governor's rule in Punjab against his own judgment. Therefore, it would be unrealistic to expect Gilani to take a stand against the wishes of Zardari.That leaves the military. It has forfeited some of the trust of the nation by repeatedly tearing up the constitution. Now, it has a chance to regain that trust by standing behind the constitution. It can do so by taking two simple steps. First, it should declare that it stands by its oath to uphold the constitution. Second, it should declare that the action taken in November 2007 by the then Chief of Army Staff putting the constitution "in abeyance" and the dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts, was unconstitutional. It will be a tough call but it is to be hoped that the army chief will seize this historical opportunity. If he does, the first decisive step will have been taken to put the country back on the rails.

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