Pak: How did they triumph?

By Ayesha Siddiqa

The movement for the restoration of the judiciary makes Pakistani civil society proud of its achievement. It is awesome how ordinary professionals struggled for two years to ensure that a civilian and military dictatorship did not obstruct the move for the independence of the judiciary.

The symbolism of the chief justice’s refusal to bow to dictatorial pressure was enormous for a society in dire need of the strengthening of its institutions. However, no matter what the extent of joy, this is the time to reflect on some of the possible challenges that lie ahead of us. In any case, the game is not over as yet. At least at the time of writing it appears that the ruling party could be tempted to try once more to isolate Nawaz Sharif and not lift governor’s rule in time. It would be quite a feat to get the people to agitate once again now that the judiciary issue is resolved.

Firstly, it is important to ensure that independence of the judiciary is truly institutionalised. Now, more than ever, will the chief justice have to work hard to ensure that he doesn’t give any semblance of bias and that efforts are truly put in to institutionalise the judiciary so that people don’t have to revert to the streets everyday. This means that he should now focus his attention on fine-tuning, streamlining and managing the judiciary and the legal profession, especially focusing on cleansing the lower courts and even the higher courts of alleged corruption and inefficiency. Affordable and timely justice is what the entire nation requires.

Second, he has to struggle to keep himself from becoming controversial. The coming months will be quite crazy as all sorts of cases will find their way into the courtroom. In any case, it is now the chief justice’s responsibility to make sure that the judiciary doesn’t pose to become the recipe for all ills in the political system and the state. However, it must play a role to keep the government in check.

Third, it is hoped that the energy invested in street power, which was instrumental in restoring the judiciary, now goes towards strengthening the political party system which continues to be weak. In the coming months and years, the political balance, as far as political parties go, will experience a change (provided the PML-N government is restored).

While the PML will strengthen its position in Punjab and pick up strength in the other provinces through expanding its support base and building coalitions, the PPP will weaken considerably. Its chairman is under-age and the co-chair will be weakened further mainly because of the rift at the top. A possible scenario is loose control at the top without a major split because the other leaders do not have the privilege of a symbolic legacy as in the case of the Bhutto progeny. It will require a strong and visionary leader with excellent management skills to put the party together under an alternative leadership which the party lacks at the moment.

While the current co-chair has taken a hit in Punjab, he has not done any better in his own province of Sindh either, because of controversial decisions and trying to launch his own set of cronies through replacing the old ones. Meanwhile, Tehrik-i-Insaf and the Jamaat-i-Islami will try to win some space. Yet, they might still not be able to provide an alternative. Under the circumstances, street power could emerge as an arbiter without the building of institutions. This is a slippery slope that we must avoid.

Fourth, there is bound to be a strengthening of the bureaucratic establishment. While the streets played a major role, the army chief and external forces that were nervous at the instability in the country provided the final push. This is not to suggest that either the army or America had conspired to weaken the president. It means that the president played a flawed game, the kind that can even inadvertently strengthen the military’s position in the state’s power politics.

The new president didn’t realise that he could not afford to engage on multiple fronts which saw rifts within his party, taking on the military through extra-institutional ventures, not strengthening existing institutions and challenging political opponents all at the same time. His strategy was to build an alternative security mechanism comprising the IB, FIA and a special anti-terror organisation, aimed at creating a balance of power internally as an institutional mechanism capable of delivering on the war on terror.

Without strengthening existing organisations such as the defence ministry, the new structure was bound to make the army insecure about his intentions as did Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Federal Security Force. Asif Zardari could still have managed had he not opened another front against his political rivals. Now, he has no one to blame but himself for creating a situation where the army has won a victory in terms of its overall image, posing yet again as a neutral arbiter.

It would not be surprising to see the state bureaucracy demand its pound of flesh by clamping down on the powerful alternative institutional mechanism that President Zardari was building. Now even the MQM may not support him the way they did earlier. The ethnic party’s leader was keen to welcome the restoration despite the fact that the MQM had left no stone unturned on May 12, 2007 to oppose the lawyers’ movement.

Eventually, the three players managing the change were the streets of Pakistan, the army and external pressure. Had he restored the chief justice after having got rid of Gen Musharraf, Asif Zardari would have earned a lot of political mileage. One wonders why he forgot so soon that people were pleasantly surprised at his initial moves after the PPP formed the government. (The media was patient with him until he started breaking his promises.) Had this restoration come at that time through an executive order, his popularity would have remained steady.

This would have given him an opportunity to make many institutional changes to strengthen political institutions and build new ones. All the while when he thought he was the best man for the job of running this state and that he had more experience than any other politician, he didn’t realise his basic flaw of not understanding that democracies in transition are strange animals that must be handled carefully.

The greatest challenge is to find the balance between the streets of Pakistan, conscious of their power to bring about change, and the state bureaucracy which is conscious of being the final arbiter once again.

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