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PAKISTAN-POLITICS: Testing Times for Democracy

Analysis by Beena Sarwar

KARACHI, Sep 16 2008 (IPS) - Political opposition against President Asif Ali Zardari -fuelled by the recent U.S. military incursions into Pakistani territory and rising food prices – appears to be tempered by the realisation that the only alternative to the current democratically elected dispensation is military rule.

For the first time in Pakistan’s chequered 61-year history as a nation-state, the army which has carried out numerous coups in the past has taken a neutral political position.

And where previous presidents have been quick to dismiss governments on one pretext or another, the current one is co-chairperson of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), while Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani is the party’s senior vice-chairman.

“It’s a terrible situation to be in,” commented Talat Aslam, editor of the Karachi daily, ‘The News’, talking with IPS. “You represent a party that has traditionally been anti-establishment, your entire history has been spent fighting the presidency, and now you are protecting that same system, allowing right-wing parties like the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League faction led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif) to steal the populist platform.”

Zardari and the PPP, however, are “attempting to retake some political power from the military, not foment radical change,” noted political activist Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, who was at the forefront of the movement against former president Pervez Musharraf’s emergency rule, and in the drive for the reinstatement of the judges sacked by Musharraf.

The refusal of Zardari’s ruling PPP to reinstate the judges by executive order led its coalition partner the PML-N to withdraw from government. The PPP retained power by forging alliances with other former political rivals.

Now, most deposed judges have been ‘restored’ after taking a controversial new oath that, according to critics, validates Musharraf’s Nov. 3, 2007 emergency orders and legitimises the judiciary headed by Abdul Hameed Dogar. The deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Choudhry, along with some other senior judges, has steadfastly refused to take this oath.

The movement by lawyers, students and civil society agitating for the restoration of the judiciary – since Musharraf first ‘suspended’ Choudhry on Mar. 9, 2007 – is credited in large part for catalysing the political transition that subsequently took place in Pakistan. Once the elections had taken place, the ball was in the court of the political parties.

In the eyes of many, the fact that some of these judges have not been restored does not necessarily mean that the lawyers’ movement ‘lost’. “Not all heroes end up winning,” says Karachi-based analyst Kamal Siddiqi. “Some show us that we can fight for what we believe in. The lawyers showed the world that Pakistanis too can protest and launch a movement that can unseat the powerful.”

The movement has undoubtedly lost steam, but Akhtar notes that it is hardly Zardari’s fault that many judges have taken fresh oath. “Do they have no agency whatsoever? Has Zardari drugged them into taking unprincipled decisions?” he said, talking to IPS over the phone from Islamabad.

“Regardless of how little democratic process there is within the PPP, Zardari does not act alone. We may disagree with his becoming president but we can’t disagree with the process through which parliament makes decisions, like making him president. It was to restore the democratic process that we took to the streets against military dictatorship. If we don’t like the outcome, we have to engage with and deepen that process. There is no shortcut. If we try too hard to find one, we might be back to another military dictatorship.”

Political opposition to the government has gained momentum with the U.S. military incursions into Pakistani territory on Sep. 3, just two days after the presidential oath-taking.

Akhtar urges a mature response from the political opposition. “The truth is that the PPP and its allies from all shades of the political spectrum have virtually ceded control over strategic policy in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to the (Pakistani) army,” he said. “Instead of blaming the elected government for the attack, it would be more meaningful to criticise them for not demanding a share of decision-making power over the so-called ‘war on terror’.”

Many see Pakistan’s ineffectiveness in clearing its north-west territories bordering Afghanistan of militants as a factor behind the U.S. military action – a decision that Pakistan insists it was not taken into confidence about.

“The U.S. military incursions are a clear violation of international law and they can have very negative repercussions,” Asma Jahangir, the Lahore-based lawyer who chairs the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan told IPS. “On the other hand, we leave the Americans with little choice.”

Those inhabiting the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, for whom the ‘war on terror’ is a life and death issue, are caught between the Taliban and the Pakistan army and now the U.S. missiles. Thousands have had to flee their homes in the conflict zones. Large numbers of internally displaced people are adding to the challenges that the new government faces.

Meanwhile, the central point confronting the Pakistani state and society remains the conflict between the civilians and the army, the outcome of which will in the long run determine other matters.

The widespread support for the democratic process in Pakistan, visible even in the normally bickering political factions, reflects the hope that now finally the army will be pushed back and the intelligence agencies reined in and there will be peace with India and Afghanistan.

For once these hopes are aligned with those of Pakistan’s powerful ally the U.S. that controls the army’s purse strings. What remains to be seen is whether Pakistan’s new political leadership has the political skill and courage to steer the country out of its current imbroglio.

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