The political parties cannot really confront this movement and emerge political victors in the end. Procrastination on restoration of the judges has already dented the PPP’s image and perceptions have grown stronger that the party is trying to defend Musharraf
There are many sceptics among us who think nothing can change in Pakistan; the old system of power politics, with roots in the feudal social order and links with military rulers, would continue with a little tinkering here and there. There are some who assume that with the elected governments, Pakistan has moved at least some notches closer to democratic transition, and once Pervez Musharraf is out, real power would vest in the assemblies, political parties and elected leaders.
That is the best democratic sheen one can put on the post-February political change. The pragmatist intellectual camp would have us believe that we must build on what we have already achieved — elected governments — and then move on to the next stage in a gradual fashion. It is not surprising that they raise questions about civil society, the lawyers’ movement, and their singular agenda and uncompromising position on the restoration of deposed judges and independence of judiciary.
The historical stage on which Pakistan finds itself is more complex than this simple analysis of what the ‘realists’ tend to view as the objective political conditions of Pakistan. Pakistani society has changed in many ways and there is now a very sharp disconnect between the new voices of Pakistan and the traditional power holders that have dominated electoral politics and power structures.
A few of the real changes in Pakistan need to be understood very clearly. First, there is a genuine, organic, grassroots movement for democratic change in Pakistan. We also need to understand the meaning of democratic change, which is not just about holding elections, getting elected and exercising power the way monarchs and oligarchies do. Democratic change is essentially about restraining the exercise of power by law and constitution.
The idea behind democratic change in Pakistan, like in any other society, is to create a government that functions under the law, not above the law. How can a society subject an elected government, which has popular legitimacy, to law and constitution? It can be done primarily through the instruments of an independent judiciary, free media, an activist civil society and a politically aware and participant population.
We see signs of a great social change in Pakistan in the freedom of media and the capacity of print and electronic media persons to raise critical questions, engage elected leaders in debate and discussion and present contrasting views to help the public make up its mind. Present and future political struggles would be essentially fought in the media, which cannot be controlled anymore to serve the interests of the old order. That is great progress that Pakistani society can be proud.
The second important sign of change in the country is the persistent struggle of the lawyers and civil society groups over the past fifteen months to get the deposed judges back in their chambers. A movement some thought would not last for more than three months is now in the fifteenth, and it is not going to end any time soon until real democratic change in the country has taken place.
The issue of restoration of judges and independence of judiciary is not the entire democratic package that the civil society of Pakistan is struggling for; it is more than that and includes all other aspects of democracy, like accountability, rule of law, people-centred and service-oriented governance.
These are markers of democracy as well as social ideals that modern societies aspire to. Another sign of change in Pakistan is that people have starting dreaming of change because they are fed up with the rotten system of patronage, corruption and plundering of public resources.
In the absence of a revolutionary party, civil society and the lawyers have played their historical role as the vanguard of real change in Pakistan. But they are not alone, and they could not raise the issue of independence of judiciary or democracy without free media. Some political parties have been part of this movement as well, working behind the scenes or marching on the sidelines. The social and political forces that have joined this movement cut across regional, religious, ethnic, ideological and party affiliations.
The civil society movement of Pakistan is similar to other democraitc movements in Latin America and Eastern Europe. It has all those social forces in its fold — including students, party workers, businesses, farmers and urban professionals, women and sympathetic media — that brought about successful social revolutions elsewhere.
Will a social revolution happen in Pakistan? Not by pulling the entire system down. It could have had elections had not taken place and the elected governments not captured the middle ground between the social movement and the military-led regime. The Pakistani social movement is centred on democracy building issues. But events can take a very different turn if the first of these demands — the restoration and independence of the judiciary — is not accepted and the parties try to fudge the issue, as they have been doing for the past three months.
Political parties, mainly the PPP, are not reading the clear and present danger of the social movement. They cannot really confront this movement and emerge political victors in the end. Procrastination on restoration of the judges has already dented the PPP’s image and perceptions have grown stronger that the party is trying to defend Musharraf.
Musharraf and his political legacy are so controversial that even a slight hint of giving him an ‘honourable’ exit provokes fierce reaction and might erode the credibility of the PPP-controlled central government further.
The PPP has lost valuable time in defusing the threat from the lawyers and civil society. The old style politics of divide-and-rule by fragmenting the lawyers and civil society groups is not going to work.
The long march, which presents a new but undefined, unstructured yet united social front for so many diverse elements, is going to be the biggest challenge this week and for many weeks and months to come. The level of excitement, motivation, mobilisation and logistical preparedness that we have seen is unprecedented. If it does not yield results now, which it might, it will produce a bigger, unstoppable and more radical social revolution in the future. The genie of social consciousness is out, and it cannot be put back in the bottle.
Dr Rasul Baksh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com. This article is part of a series examining the education system of Pakistan
Daily times, 10/6/2008