Pakistan’s Brighter Future: The View From The Ground

in Program

By Amit Pandya – When I returned from Pakistan to the United States this week I was met with a widespread perception among US observers that there has been little mass resistance to the state of emergency declared by General Musharraf. This is simply inaccurate. For their part US policy elites assume that US diplomacy will make a significant difference to the course of events. This too is a dubious proposition. Musharraf feels insecure enough to crack down on perceived threats to his rule. There is a palpable sense in Pakistan that the country is at a historic juncture.

The momentum of events in Pakistan is outside the control of the US government, and resentment against us is high in all political quarters. About the only difference that US policy will make is to the perception of the US among Pakistanis. If we understand and support what the people of Pakistan are demanding, we may salvage some goodwill. Most Pakistanis assume that the Musharraf era is coming to an end, and that there will be a change that will have to reflect the political re-empowerment of Pakistani society.

While not unimportant to Pakistanis, the principal demands of the US government are less important than the longer term political developments in the society. The elections to be held in a little over a month are not considered significant. Whether the General retires as Army Chief and serves as a civilian President has also become entirely unimportant. The key issue is whether he leads the country, and the actual role of the Army in the government.
There have been daily demonstrations throughout the country of lawyers, journalists and political parties against the state of emergency, and these have routinely been met with police violence and mass arrests. Aitzaz Ahsan, the country’s preeminent lawyer who successfully won reinstatement of the Chief Justice, only to see his client summarily dismissed by Musharraf from the bench, also remains in detention. Notwithstanding the recent releases of many political prisoners, many yet remain in custody, and the regime has threatened to re-arrest anyone it chooses.

The independent broadcast press is back on the air, but the regime dangles the sword of Damocles over the press through its failure to renounce peremptory powers over the press and its “advice” to some channels to refrain from broadcasting.

Yet, as one speaks to Pakistanis, it is hard to avoid the widespread sentiment that a new energy and awareness among its citizens presages a brighter future.

The sense of promise is entirely surprising. Observers have long noted the anomaly between the sophistication of Pakistan’s intelligentsia and its difficulty in shaking off the curses of military rule and corrupt civilian politics. Just a few weeks ago it seemed that there was little alternative to a shotgun marriage (with Uncle Sam wielding the gun) between the praetorian state and one of the two major political parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

There was much to dread in such a political convergence. The army remains indispensable to any future political order because of the tenacious hold that it has now established in the national economy, and because Pakistan, under any government however democratic, will face armed challenges from within or without. However, there has also been a widespread and growing sense that its long and repeated interference in politics has harmed both the political development of Pakistan and the integrity of its principal mission of national defense against the country’s enemies.

The main political parties, those with sufficient support to be political players in their own right, offered a poor alternative. Widely discredited by their tenures in government in the 1990s, both the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (PML(N)), were viewed askance by many Pakistanis of democratic conviction. Indeed, many considered the Musharraf regime’s survival a result of the public’s distrust of the large political parties.

Today, the rule of law has become the most powerful organizing principle, and has acted to bring together disparate elements of the Pakistani polity.

This should have been apparent to the regime, when its suspension of the Chief Justice in March was met by a protest movement that catalyzed a precipitous fall in General Musharraf’s public support. The judiciary, historically not a beacon of independence from the executive, was increasingly challenging the regime’s peremptory detention, and even “disappearance”, of ordinary Pakistanis. It had also developed a jurisdictional jurisprudence, seen in India a couple of decades ago under then Chief Justice Bhagwati, of considering public interest matters on its own motion. What this did was to give poor and unlettered Pakistanis access to redress of grievances without the need for the expense and sophistication usually required of litigants. The Courts therefore became the last resort of the poor in a political system that was otherwise distinctly unconcerned with their interests. Recent events offer evidence of the empowerment through law that has emerged as a prominent theme: lawyers, on strike to protest the attack on the judiciary, have instructed their clients in law, so that they may safeguard their own legal interests in the interim.

The rule of law and judicial independence have become central to the calculations of the politicians. After originally making no reference to the issue in her list of demands, Benazir Bhutto has come around to including it. Nawaz Sharif for his part has sought to make restoration of the judges and the independence of the judiciary the central plank for broad opposition unity.

Of the established political leaders, Nawaz seems to have gained the most from recent events. His popularity has risen precisely because, unlike Benazir, he has been untainted by negotiations with General Musharraf. His skillful positioning as champion of judicial independence has burnished his image. Benazir has seemed at a disadvantage, following trends rather than guiding them.

The redressing of the balance between the major political parties, to a position of near parity, has compelled them to cooperate with each other. Because their stock remains low, even when combined, as a result of their past abuses of power, they are also compelled to collaborate with other smaller political parties. Indeed, there is consensus across the political spectrum that only a broad and united opposition movement can act to force a transition to democracy.

The outstanding issue between the PPP and the PML(N) is that of how broad a unity they envision. Nawaz has insisted that all parties be included, including the Islamists. Benazir has so far looked to a unity of the non-Islamist parties, perhaps reflecting the preferences of the United States, whose support has been important to her so far. The approach of Nawaz and the PML(N) is the preferable one. It is essential that the broadest range of political forces be gathered. Apart from the deleterious effects of disunity on the delicate task of transition, there is a significant danger in exclusion of Islamist parties. They can play the part of spoilers if given no stake in the process. They have reason to play a constructive role if included. Some of them, as I was repeatedly reminded by secular Pakistanis, have democratic instincts, such as the Jamiat Ulama e Islam (Fazlur Rahman), and others whose democratic instincts may be debated, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, nonetheless remain committed to constitutional political action. In general, while they have often maintained respectful dialogue with more radical elements, the established Islamist political parties feel competition for their political base from those more radical elements that are taking up arms against the government. They are keen to see a national consensus on social and security policy to address the various insurgencies. Certainly, the Islamist political parties have historically prospered under military rule, and have cooperated even with the Musharraf regime. Nonetheless, they see the current regime as unviable, and are keen to cut their losses and end their association with it.

Indeed, so broad a consensus will be needed to consolidate a political transition in Pakistan’s difficult social, political and security conditions, that participation of all elements of society in the political transition will be needed. This includes the armed forces. It’s simply that General Musharraf, once significantly more popular, has now become a liability: to democracy, to the Army and to Pakistan.

 photo credit: Sajjad Ali Qureshi, ([email protected]/2057683190/)

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