Beyond the judicial crisis

Pakistan has a long and complex history of democratic struggles against military regimes, but each time we failed to transform the movement into a democratic transition. But times have changed Pakistan’s political landscape has changed vastly in the last sixty days, in a way nobody imagined it would. Defiance by one person, the chief justice of Pakistan, has inspired countless citizens of country to rally around him in the sweltering heat, and endure beatings by the police, arrests and teargas shells. A wave of unexpected unrest has shaken the regime to its bones. All-is-well stories should be too familiar to the General to please him by now. Or he himself might have the illusion that he has wit, power and allies that would rescue him from the danger zone he has landed in. Only the wilfully ignorant can deny what is happening before their eyes, in broad daylight. Ignoring political reality, a usual tactic of governments, serves no real purpose except preserving an appearance of confidence before the public and maintaining some degree of cohesion within government ranks. But by stripping it of its capacity to handle events prudently, it may have disastrous political consequences for the regime. This is already happening. The chief ministers of Sindh and the Punjab, whose toadying knows no bounds, have started organising reactive rallies with public resources to show support for General Musharraf. In their sycophantic frenzy they are failing to realise that their actions may provoke violent strife. The spirit, solidarity and message of the current lawyers’ movement marks the beginning of a new chapter in Pakistan’s political history, very different from past uprisings and agitations. The fundamental issue is what kind of state Pakistan was envisioned to be and should be. The issue of power and competing political groups and leaders has been pushed to the sidelines; the focus is on redefining relations, jurisdictions and constitutionality of institutions. In the last epoch-making two months, the bar councils have created a storm in the stagnant and putrid political waters. They have dispersed the thick layer of gloom and passivity regarding rule of law. The energy, enthusiasm and unwavering commitment of the councils to the rule of law, constitutionalism and independence of judiciary have enthused and inspired all other sections of society that want the country return to these founding ideals. Today, nothing appears to be calm on any front, anywhere in the country. We are witnessing a new wave of political mobilisation, in a form that we have not seen before and that must have taken the regime and its kitchen strategists by surprise. Even the core elements of the coalition of political groups and parties that has supported General Pervez Musharraf for more than seven years are in shock over his unwise action against the chief justice and the anger and resistance it has generated against everybody associated with him. Many of them have preferred to stay quietly out of sight, hesitating to put up an unequivocal defence of the judicial reference. As the movement picks up steam in this summer of discontent, the most articulate partners of the military regime remain conspicuous by their absence from media debates. Only an odd couple, the minister of information and of law and parliamentary affairs, both inconsistent and often apologetic, are left to defend the regime. The viewers, listeners and readers of their statements do not take them seriously anymore. These sure signs of the regime’s political isolation have many historical parallels. Political opportunists supporting a dictator are always the first to leave his leaking boat. The sounds and sights of the most recent rally of the chief justice from Islamabad to Lahore, that took more than a day and a night to reach the city, and other rallies in Sindh and the Frontier portray contours of the fast-changing political scene that the regime is unwilling to read. The demonstrations launched by the lawyers’ associations are not confined to the issue of restoring the chief justice to his position, or to a symbolic show of respect and support for his office. They have resolved to engage in a historic struggle for the supremacy of the Constitution that will have a strong bearing on civil-military relations. It is not the first time that lawyers have taken the lead and political parties and civil society groups have joined them to restore democracy in its true spirit. Pakistan has a long and complex history of democratic struggles against military regimes, but each time we failed to transform the movement into a democratic transition. Political fragmentation, rivalry amongst ambitious leaders, and ideological polarisation were some of the factors that turned our victory into political defeat. Times have changed. Pakistan’s social and political environment is very different from what it used to be, and so is the array of political actors on the scene and the dominant political thinking. The proliferation and global reach of the electronic media have lessened states’ capability to repress and control society. The effects of democratic transitions and the lessons of peaceful social revolutions brought about by mass civil disobedience are not lost on Pakistanis. What is so different now and what gives us hope that we will be able to redefine civil-military relations? There is an emerging consensus that military regimes have undermined the federation, caused institutional decay and stunted the growth of the democratic culture. The autocratic rule of the generals has increased Pakistan’s many internal vulnerabilities, which threaten its stability and social coherence. Three experiments of ‘guided democracy’ have removed us farther away from our democratic destination. The four generals who have ruled the country used the armed forces as their cover by staying in uniform, and dishonoured democratic institutions by rigging elections and referenda. Perhaps the more damaging of their acts was their setting aside the Constitution and forcing the judiciary to accept their provisional constitutions and validate their takeovers. The mockery of the rule of law and lack of respect for the Constitution at the top has created a crisis of values by giving rise to the culture of immorality. This is manifested daily in violation of laws and public interest and in the plunder of national wealth and resources by those in positions of authority. The boldness of the chief justice in standing up to the most powerful man in the country has fired up every Pakistani. The independence of judiciary and rule of law, that keep the military within the Constitution, are the central pillars on which democratic structures rest. What gives hope is the uniformity of views on these vital issues among the lawyers, judges of the superior courts, political parties and civil society. No social revolution of the kind that is unfolding in Pakistan was ever planned or foreseen. One last point: the balance of social and political forces, to use terms the military understand better, has quite visibly shifted against the army’s vision of what is good for Pakistan. As in the past, the emerging social consensus is on parliamentary democracy under the 1973 Constitution. The only way out of the current political troubles is an interim government of national reconciliation, with the mandate to conduct free and impartial elections. The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.