Jun 142008

Till recently, the objective of restoring the judges was linked to the goal of getting rid of President Musharraf. But there has been a shift in emphasis
There is little doubt that the social energy generated by the lawyers’ movement supported by other sections of society is unprecedented. It cuts across classes and it transcends regions. The bar associations of the four provinces of Pakistan, united in their resolve, have evolved into a unifying asset with a collective leadership.

For a movement of this kind to have sustained itself over for more than a year has to be some kind of a record, anywhere in the world. The demand for the restoration of the judges remains squarely on the agenda because of their massive effort. And, technicalities aside, the restoration of deposed judges cannot be separated from the notion of an independent judiciary in the given context.

Till recently, the objective of restoring the judges was linked to the goal of getting rid of President Musharraf. But there has been a shift in emphasis. Speaking in Multan on Wednesday, as the Long March or motorised caravan proceeded towards Islamabad, Aitzaz Ahsan sought to put matters in perspective. The president he said was already history. So it was important to focus on the restoration of the judges rather than the departure of Musharraf.

This would seem a fair assessment given also some of the recent changes in the army, including that in the command of the key triple-one brigade that is responsible for Islamabad’s security. That these have been explained away as routine was only to be expected. The president’s exit may not come as quickly as we would prefer but it does seem now that it would be far quicker than he would have expected before the election results left him with no rationale for his oft-repeated claim that he was a popular president.

The focus of the Long March, then, is Parliament and this has now been explicitly stated by the leadership. While this is a legitimate means of exerting pressure, hopefully, elements that seek to take matters in a different direction will not succeed in turning it into a confrontation. While democracy cannot be built on the ruins of a demolished judiciary, we need to keep in mind that Parliament today cannot be seen as an extension of a dictator and that the recent elections were widely regarded as free and fair.

So, how are the judges are to be restored — by way of a resolution followed by an executive order or through a constitutional amendment?

The problem with the latter course obviously is the issue of time. The perception that the PPP intended to use this course essentially to delay matters interminably has been strengthened by the fact that the proposed amendment now has close to 80 proposals and some more may yet be added. It can be argued that the sitting judges could issue a stay order against any move to restore the deposed judges. So an amendment is necessary. But that does not mean that all kinds of other issues need to be incorporated into this one amendment. Let the key issues pertaining to the judges be part of one amendment that calls for a fairly brief debate and the other issues can be dealt with in a second amendment.

The government could well calculate that the sit-in before Parliament cannot draw numbers large enough to force its hand. And so it may choose to stay the course. But then there would be another march in a few weeks time. And the lawyers in support of the judges have given sufficient evidence of their resolve for the government to not make the mistake of underestimating their determination.

The bottom line is that a polity besieged by multiple crises simply cannot afford this stalemate. Both the political parties must meet with the lawyers’ leadership and find a way to break the impasse. The budget has increased the number of Supreme Court judges to 29. This indicates that the government recognises the deposed judges as being part of the court.

It also means that those who were appointed after Nov 3 will continue in office. This is unacceptable to those leading the movement. But, is there room for compromise on this issue?

The basic commitment on the part of the lawyers as well as the political parties has been that the deposed judges will be restored. Could a possible compromise be a short time frame for the restoration of the deposed judges with seniority, retaining of the judges in place and most other matters to be taken up in a separate constitutional amendment?

Meanwhile the energy price hike and food shortages are taking an ominous form. Sector subsidies in food, fuel and fertilisers are being slashed to be replaced by what in theory are more effective targeted subsidies for cushioning the severe impact on large numbers already subsisting close to the poverty line.

But, these will require tremendous efficiency and oversight on the part of the government to be effective. Performance at the usual level of efficiency could spell disaster of huge proportions. And, as immediately a consensus has to be developed on the policies to be followed with regard to the tribal areas.

The tragic killing on Tuesday of Pakistan’s paramilitary personnel as a result of military action on the Pak-Afghan border by US forces, followed by Pentagon’s assertion that such action was warranted, needs to be strongly condemned. But it also requires careful appraisal and possibly an All Parties Conference. Our options are getting increasingly limited and here too, time is of the essence.

The coalition represents the next best thing to a government of national unity. The two major parties bear the greater responsibility for gearing up to meet the grave challenges with which we are confronted. And, even with the best effort we will need luck on our side to find our way out of this morass.

So, the judges’ issue needs to be settled quickly and other equally pressing matters attended to.

Abbas Rashid is a freelance journalist and political analyst whose career has included editorial positions in various Pakistani newspapers

Source: Daily Times, 14/6/2008

 Posted by at 7:48 am

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