Jun 152008

Political parties and societal groups should not see each other as rival or antagonists, although at this point their agenda may seem divergent. They need to work together to strengthen democracy
The Long March clearly demonstrated the lawyers’ capacity to effectively mobilise lawyers and several other societal groups all over Pakistan. It was thoughtfully planned, effectively managed and peacefully conducted, providing yet more evidence of the lawyers’ determination to get the ousted judges restored.

Their task was facilitated by the support of the media. Private news channels gave ample coverage to the march in their news bulletin.

The lawyers not only reiterated their support to constitutionalism, the rule of law, an independent judiciary and restoration of the judges but also vowed to work for making the state structure more responsive to the people’s needs and aspirations. They maintained that the people would set the priorities of the state rather than the military-bureaucratic elite that dominated policy making and management in the past.

This is a trend-setting and historical development which will have far reaching implications for the relationship between our state and society. It has helped to restore the confidence of the societal and political forces in their capacity to cause political change through collective action. Consequently, societal activism has increased in Pakistan.

Some of the dormant societal groups have taken to activism and a host of new groups have surfaced which have no formal affiliation with any political party or the state. They are raising all kinds of political, economic and social issues and asserting their primacy in shaping the priorities of the state and the society.

This kind of societal activity is common practice in a functioning democracy. In Pakistan, the military-bureaucratic elite dominated the political system in such a pervasive manner that autonomous political and societal activities were stifled. It was not merely the political parties that were targeted but other civilian groups like student and labour unions and other professional interest or pressures groups were also discouraged and contained.

Some of these groups operated either as subsidiaries of political parties or as weak social entities that hardly questioned the power of the state. Some groups were co-opted by the state. There were groups that focused on some local causes or engaged in public welfare activities but stayed clear of the political domain.

From time to time societal group activity surfaced in the political domain but it did not become a political force in its own right. For example, these groups got involved in the anti-Ayub Khan movement in 1968-69. Various societal groups, especially the religious entities, took part in the anti-Bhutto (Zulfikar) street agitation in 1977. Similarly, the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) benefited from the support of societal groups in 1983 and 1986.

But societal groups did not play an autonomous role in these movements; they operated as a subsidiary of political parties or maintained a low profile. Once the movement was over the societal groups receded to their low-key limited activities. There was a resurgence of trade union activity in the early years of the Bhutto government in 1972-73. Subsequently, the Bhutto government discouraged their activities and attempted to curb and divide them. Their role was stifled after General Zia-ul-Haq established his military rule in July 1977.

Pervez Musharraf was also not favourably disposed towards autonomous political activities and discouraged all those who were perceived to be a challenge to his commanding role in Pakistan. He also attempted to overwhelm the civilian sectors of the society by the enormous expansion of the role of the military personnel in civilian affairs.

Through all this, the lawyers were able to maintain varying degrees of autonomy though the network of their professional organisations, i.e. bar councils, which existed at all levels from the federal to the district level and below. This network functioned no matter who ruled the country. A good number of the lawyers had different party affiliations but they functioned as a professional group under the bar councils. ]

The governments often attempted to win some elements over among the lawyers by offering material rewards in the shape of donations to bar councils or by offering to place the lawyers on the government’s approved list for hiring in government cases.

Then, the ill-advised move by Pervez Musharraf to coerce Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to resign on March 9, 2007 and the latter’s decision to stand up to this pressure galvanised the lawyers across the political divide. They viewed this as an attempt by Musharraf to undermine the judiciary and the legal profession to secure another term as president.

The lawyers quickly mobilised the community all over Pakistan by invoking the bar council network which had survived the assault of all military rulers, including Pervez Musharraf. This network quickly brought the lawyers on one political wavelength from the sub-district level to the federal level.

The bar councils of the Supreme Court and the four provincial High Courts took the lead in supporting the Chief Justice against Musharraf’s attempt to remove him. The lawyers also opposed Pervez Musharraf’s re-election from the outgoing assemblies.

The lawyers’ movement reinvigorated itself when Pervez Musharraf suspended the Constitution and forced the Chief Justice and nearly 60 other judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts to quit by prescribing a new oath of office as a pre-condition for continuing as judge.

These developments have enhanced the role of the civil society and encouraged non-official group activity for pursing political and socio-economic agendas. Other civic minded groups have become active and have visibly started taking courageous positions on issues of public interest and welfare.

A vibrant civil society holds the key to sustaining democracy. However, the political parties and societal groups should not see each other as rival or antagonists, although at this point their agenda may seem divergent. They need to work together to strengthen democracy and change the focus of the Pakistani state from territorial security to societal security.

Proliferation of civic groups and multiplication of their activities is also a credible security against the rise of authoritarian ruler and military adventurers.

Therefore, the elected government should strengthen its ties with the societal groups and political parties to sustain Pakistan’s return to democracy

Instead, the government’s indecisiveness on the restoration of the judges and the future of Musharraf has created strong strains between the government and the lawyers and other societal groups and political forces.

The government has already lost its initial advantage by delaying the resolution of these problems. Now, as the societal groups and some political parties build pressure on the government, the latter’s governance capacity will be impaired. This will also divide and weaken the civilian institutions and processes and embolden the presidency and the military to wrest the initiative. The government should seek strength by working closely with civilian groups and political forces if it wants to sustain its commanding role.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

Source: Daily Times, 15/6/2008

 Posted by at 1:16 pm

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