Zardari’s remarks on the judges’ issue at his joint press conference with Nawaz Sharif on April 22 and his more recent interviews leave no room for ambiguity. The PPP co-chairman does not feel bound by the commitment he made in the Murree Declaration either with regard to the thirty-day deadline or the modality of a parliamentary resolution. He would like the issue to be resolved without any timeline and through a constitutional amendment.
What is more, Zardari is very comfortable with a Supreme Court headed by Hameed Dogar and would like to keep Iftikhar Chaudhry out. If Iftikhar Chaudhry has to be restored, as the PML-N and the civil society have been demanding, then it must be under conditions that ensure an amenable Court. These conditions, some more explicitly articulated than others, are that: (a) the Chief Justice should be restored for as short a time as possible and with his powers clipped; (b) all those judges who took oath under the PCO or were appointed after the Musharraf “emergency” should be retained; (c) the NRO and the judgements given by the PCO judges should be protected.
Zardari would like Nawaz Sharif to stay in the coalition and play ball, but if the PML-N leader does not, Zardari has indicated that he has the option of turning to the MQM and the PML-Q for support. The ANP and the JUI (F) would also side with the PPP on this issue and the result would be that the PML-N would stand isolated and the Dogar court would continue. For good measure, Zardari also threw in the Sindh card, if his wishes were defied.
If the Zardari plan goes through, Musharraf will also stand confirmed in the presidency for five years. At present, it is not clear how serious the PPP leadership is about undoing Article 58 (2) (b). Who knows it might be needed to topple a PML-N government in Punjab if things really get nasty. Let us be clear that even a completely defanged and toothless Musharraf, whose only duty as president is to give away prizes at golf championships and to attend weddings and other social events, will not quit unless he is made to. Because he knows that if he is no longer president and continues to stay in the country, he could be prosecuted under Article 6 of the Constitution.
At his press conference on April 22, Zardari said that he had linked the restoration of the judges with a constitutional package because he was concerned about the “future generations” of Pakistanis and wanted to spare them the agony of having to live under a usurper backed by a judiciary composed of judges who had sworn loyalty to a PCO. If we cannot take a usurper to task, he said, we will at least be able to punish the judges who swear loyalty to him. If Zardari seriously wants the nation to believe him, he should start by making an example of the present coup-maker and the existing lot of PCO judges, instead of being so hell-bent on keeping them in office.
Clearly, Zardari’s aim is not an independent judiciary but one that is beholden to him and will do his bidding. In fairness to Zardari, it must be said that the stance of the PPP leadership – under Benazir earlier and now under Zardari – has been quite consistent. Except for one occasion shortly after Nov 3 when Benazir called for the reinstatement of Iftikhar Chaudhry, the PPP has always maintained that personalities (read Iftikhar Chaudhry and the other dismissed judges) are not important. If the PML-N has now been outmanoeuvred and the civil society feels cheated, it is because they were outsmarted.
By reneging on the Murree Declaration, Zardari has thrown down the gauntlet to all those who believe that without an independent judiciary and respect for the Constitution, the country will not be able to get out of the hole in which it is now stuck, thanks to years of corrupt and inept governance by military dictators and by self-seeking politicians. The civil society will have to take up Zardari’s challenge if all the gains made since March 9 are not to be lost. To borrow Zardari’s words, we owe it to future generations. The restoration of the judiciary to the position before the Nov 3 coup is necessary not so much for the sake of the judges who were wrongfully dismissed but, more important, in order to assert the sanctity of the Constitution and to teach a lesson to the present coup-maker in the Presidency and any future military adventurers.
Musharraf and Zardari have allied themselves against an independent judiciary because they both have something to fear from it: Musharraf because he stole the election of president last October and Zardari because the NRO, under whose umbrella he returned to the country, might not be able to stand the test of constitutionality in an independent court. The PPP leadership is not even prepared to allow a debate on the NRO in Parliament. Their attempt is to quietly make it a permanent law through the proposed constitutional package. On April 12, Law Minister Naek opposed discussion of a call-attention notice in the National Assembly, pointing out that while senior politicians and bureaucrats had benefited from the Ordinance, it was not applied to ordinary political workers.
The danger is that the PML-N might also join in the conspiracy of silence on the NRO. Shahbaz Sharif indicated this when he called for extending the amnesty also to those accused of corruption since 1999. If this goes on, it is only a question of time before our political leaders would be demanding that the Pakistan Penal Code should not apply to them.
The NRO is at the root of the present tangle over the issue of the restoration of the judges. Its four-month life is over and under Article 89 of the Constitution it stands repealed. One of the real purposes of the constitutional amendment that Zardari claims is needed for the restoration of the judges is to make the NRO a permanent law and place it beyond judicial review.
What can the civil society do now? The key to success lies in vigorously re-launching the lawyers’ movement after the thirty-day grace period agreed in the Murree Declaration is over. We should not allow the future of the country to be held hostage to the NRO, one of Musharraf’s many poisonous gifts to the nation. The only object of this Ordinance was to prolong his hold on the presidency by winning over the PPP to his side. The public and the media reacted last October to the promulgation of the NRO with a howl of disapproval, but this became muted after the PPP joined in the opposition to the Musharraf emergency.
Under Musharraf, the accountability courts were used blatantly for political purposes and the accused were often denied a fair trial. Instead of granting a blanket amnesty to the rich and the powerful from particular political parties, the parliament should now be asked to pass a new law providing for a fair, transparent and speedy trial of all accountability cases.
In one of his interviews, Zardari said that if Nawaz Sharif participates in a popular movement for the restoration of the judges, he himself would join the PML-N leader. Maybe before that we should also ask Zardari to say “no” to the NRO. It will not be easy, but give it a try, Asif Ali Zardari. You will do the country proud and do yourself proud.
The writer is a former member of the Foreign Service. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Courtesy: The News, 1/5/2008