Implications of the Lahore High Court verdict-By Nasim Zehra

As the reports indicate, the judges of the Lahore high Court bench assured the lawyers arguing against the petition to disqualify Nawaz Sharif that their arguments would be heard the following day. Instead, they returned with a judgment. Nawaz Sharif stands disqualified. The PML-N has refused to petition against it in the Supreme Court. Asif Ali Zardari is reported to have said that “barring of the popular leadership of the country from contesting elections would not serve the cause of democracy in the country.”

The PPP leadership has expressed its disappointment and reservations on the judgment. Many senior PPP members, including those in high positions, have called the PML leader to express their “disappointment.” According to the PPP spokesman his party and the federal government petition had already stated that the petition against the PML-N leader was unsustainable.

This judgment has come against the backdrop of Nawaz Sharif’s growing popularity as a political leader. The Presidency’s view on Nawaz Sharif is known and questions regarding the health of the coalition are growing. Nawaz Sharif’s stance on the existing judiciary and his demand for the restoration of the 60 judges is also known. The tape released by the PML-N alleging that the Lahore High Court chief justice had assured the PML-Q leader of knocking out the Sharif brothers from the election process had also allegedly suggested that the court’s judges were not unbiased. All this also raises questions about the ability of the Lahore High Court to dispense genuine justice in the Sharifs’ case.

However, there is news that the federal government would petition against the Lahore High Court judgment and the hope is that the judgment will be knocked down.

Whatever the outcome of the petition if it is filed in the Supreme Court, the knocking out of Nawaz Sharif from the electoral fray does undermine the essence of national reconciliation which, as the majority understood it, was about taking the country forward, of forgoing past blunders and excesses committed by all sides. People were fed up of all the mindless battling, of the ad hocism and the whimsical exercise of authority. They sought political energy and state authority to get focused on dealing with the problems of State and of society. The public generally veered towards giving general amnesty to law-breakers and authority abusers for a batter tomorrow. The NRO, although negotiated by Gen Musharraf was, even if grudgingly, accepted by the people. The public didn’t forget the politicians’ weaknesses but the mess of 2007 committed by the Musharraf regime made people feel the return of the politicians, and finally of rule of law, was a must. Hence the voters’ proclivity for general amnesty to the politicians.

But the Lahore High Court judgment violates the national reconciliation spirit. If the State could actually pull back from cases against the PPP leadership inside and outside Pakistan, the PML-N leader too deserved amnesty for the events of Oct 12–an amnesty that was in any event given by the president in December 2000. A Nawaz Sharif knockout attempt would mean pushing for selective national reconciliation.

Also, past the election the spirit of national reconciliation has been undermined, as is the hope for rule of law. The restoration of the judiciary, even more critical than Gen Musharraf’s impeachment, has still not taken place. Complete clarity on the PPP leadership’s commitment to national reconciliation, to institutionalised decision-making, to good governance and to rule of law is still lacking. After Mr Asif Zardari’s initial reconciliation moves, not much has followed on the political front and on the governance front to inspire confidence.

Two issues are clear. One, that the PPP co-chairman, without any official position, is within parliamentary politics the most powerful political figure. He does control many levers of power. No major appointments and decisions are taken without the “Zardari nod.” Two, that, despite there being no imminent danger to the coalition’s survival, the terms of the PPP/PML-N coalition do not augur well for the future functioning of the coalition and for the partners’ ability to collectively promote rule of law, resuscitate the sagging economy, improve governance, provide healthcare, education and employment to the public, institutional strengthening, an independent judiciary, and an independent Election Commission.

This coalition has failed to work as a genuine coalition. That the two leaders keep discussing ways of removing Gen Musharraf and restoring the judiciary does not make for a working coalition. After all, no major appointments, including the appointment of the Punjab governor, no major policy statements including the prime minister’s 100 days vision, no constitutional move including the 62-point constitutional package, have been an outcome of a joint decision. In fact, lately the PPP co-chairman has talked of appointing a PPP worker from Sindh as president of Pakistan. He has heavily articulated Pakistan’s future democratic journey as a PPP monopoly. These are not the ways of trust-based partnerships. All this puts pressure on the coalition.

This raises doubts about the political intentions of the PPP leadership. Despite Gen Musharraf’s open preference and subsequent attempts to engineer a PPP/PML-Q coalition and knock out the PML-N, there is skepticism regarding the PPP’s sincerity in “playing it fair and clean” with its major coalition partner, the PML-N. The survival of the coalition notwithstanding, there are enough steps taken by the PPP that make many within the PML-N wonder — Nawaz Sharif’s commitment, for various reasons, to the coalition notwithstanding — why the third- term bar for the prime ministerial slot was not made part of the proposed constitutional amendment? The merits and demerits of the bar is another matter, but the failure to introduce this in the package, given that PPP leader Benazir Bhutto herself was keen to remove the amendment, raises issues of trust.

Hence, the disqualification move raises question if the ostensible beneficiary of this move is the lame-duck President Parvez Musharraf or the PPP. Is the PPP using the president as an excuse for taking steps exclusively beneficial to the PPP? Is the PPP leadership able to transcend beyond political compulsions and show a commitment to the prime agenda of system and institutional reform?

In the final analysis, the judgment is unsustainable. Legally there are holes in the judgment given that the hearing was a flawed hearing. Also, it will be seen as the judgment of a court that is biased. Politically it will be viewed as yet another attempt to knock out Nawaz Sharif. It does not matter whether by orders of the Presidency or by a “Zardari nod.” It is a judgment that clearly manifests absence of “fair play.” Ironically, the unsustainable judgment will also further strengthen the case for restoring the judiciary. Whatever the motives of the judgment, it will be rolled back–probably by the Supreme Court.
The writer is an Islamabad-based security analyst

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