In search of a non-partisan president of Pakistan

Rahimullah Yusufzai
One would have wished Pakistan to have a non-partisan president, and certainly most Pakistanis harbour a similar wish. But this may not happen as PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari wants the exalted office for himself or his sister, Faryal Talpur, who is his covering candidate. It is all in the family once again as our politicians, of all hues, cannot look beyond their kith and kin while doling out favours or filling public offices. And Zardari, in keeping with his boastful claim recently in Lahore, is set to install a jiyala in the Presidency after having conquered the Punjab Governor’s House through the born-again PPP leader Salmaan Taseer.

Some people, among them PML-Q head Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, believe that Zardari will withdraw his nomination papers today and thus chose not to become the president of Pakistan. Having sprung surprises on his allies and even party leaders more than once by taking unilateral decisions and violating his verbal and written promises, the unpredictable Zardari could be expected to do the unexpected. It will therefore be hazardous to take things at face value as far as the presently unchallenged PPP leader is concerned.

The joyous celebrations that marked President General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s resignation have given way to despair much too soon. Within a week of his departure, the uncertain, and in a way unnatural, six-month old coalition between the PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N has fallen apart and new political realignments based on opportunism and vested interest, rather than ideology or principles, are taking shape. And to our misfortune, Pakistan is destined to suffer further political turmoil at a time when it is in need of a stable government to tackle the grave challenges, including the economic depression, militancy and energy crisis, facing the country. All those who have been bravely defending the right of politicians to rule the country and demanding the return of the military to barracks are once again confounded and disappointed. What to do when our political leaders refuse to learn from past mistakes and act in a way that could shorten the life of the democratic dispensation presently in place.

Until recently, Zardari was saying that he didn’t want the job of president. His sister too said she wasn’t interested. Now both have filed their nomination papers to contest the presidential election and Zardari, in his usual style, will explain this change of heart as “politics.” In his way of reasoning, politics allows you to tell lies and go back on promises and even written commitments. Perhaps this is the reason why so many well-meaning and talented people in Pakistan want to stay away from politics.

Now that the race for presidency is gathering steam, PPP leaders ranging from Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to federal and provincial ministers are busy campaigning for Zardari, using official resources. Allegations of horse-trading would surely follow and those switching loyalties and offering their votes would be rewarded with berths in the cabinet, or chamak, the word immortalized by none else than the late PPP leader Benazir Bhutto. Every party, be it Altaf Hussain’s MQM, Asfandyar Wali Khan’s ANP, Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI-F, Pir Pagaro’s PML-F or Aftab Sherpao’s PPP-S, would demand its pound of flesh before voting for the PPP candidate. Small parties and independent lawmakers are happy that they would now be able to command a price for their vote. This would not have been the case had the two largest political parties, the PPP and the PML-N, had stayed together, in which case they would have and easily facilitated the election of their joint presidential nominee.

The PML-N too could face allegations of employing the official machinery as the ruling party in Punjab to accumulate votes for its presidential candidate, former chief justice of Pakistan Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui. Punjab governor Taseer, who apparently was appointed to his position with an eye to such a situation arising in future due to a parting of ways between the PPP and the PML-N, has cautioned that this would not be allowed. Already, a tussle has started between the Governor’s House and the Chief Minister’s House in Lahore, with the former becoming an operations headquarters for the PPP and the latter emerging as the PML-N’s centre for plotting political moves.

The PML-N’s choice of Justice (retd) Siddiqui as its candidate for president has also been questioned, with critics pointing out that he played a role in facilitating then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s game plan to oust Supreme Court chief justice Sajjad Ali Shah. To his credit, though, Justice Siddiqui courageously refused to take oath under the questionable Legal Framework Order that Gen Musharraf promulgated after staging his coup against the democratic government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1999. By sacrificing his prized job, he showed the way to judges to subsequently take a stand against the same military dictator in 2007.

Deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry’s opponents often point out that he did take oath at a time when Justice Siddiqui and some of his brother judges declined to do so and, therefore, helped strengthen Gen Musharraf’s illegal and unconstitutional rule. However, Justice Chaudhry made amends in a remarkable manner when he resisted Gen Musharraf’s orders to resign on March 9, 2007, and triggered the unprecedented lawyers’ movement that weakened the government to such an extent that the military dictator was forced to concede ground and make mistakes. The popular public support for the cause spearheaded by Chief Justice Chaudhry and other honourable judges eventually forced Musharraf to quit as Army chief and hold free and fair elections that were predictably won by parties opposed to him.

So steady is the support for the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry and other deposed judges, and as a consequence for the independence of the judiciary and rule of law, that every public opinion poll taken in 2007 and 2008 rates this as a high-priority issue, despite the fact that the people of Pakistan are facing a host of problems, including lawlessness, economic difficulties, unemployment and electricity shortages.

It has now become clear that Zardari and his lieutenants were never in favour of unconditional reinstatement of the deposed judges as demanded by Nawaz Sharif. Agreements made with the PML-N on this issue were aimed at buying time and consolidating the PPP’s hold on power. By selectively reinstating some of the judges on its own terms, the PPP-led government has shown that it is wary of Chief Justice Chaudhry and certain other independent-minded members of the superior judiciary because they could become a hurdle in its bid to rule unchallenged.

Rulers never want any check on their authority and nobody likes an independent judge in a country where the judiciary has traditionally been at the beck and call of military dictators and authoritarian civilian presidents and prime ministers. Zardari, some of his PPP fellows and his newfound allies from the MQM still fear that Chief Justice Chaudhry could reopen the unjust laws, such as the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), that cleansed them of charges of corruption and misuse of power and make them accountable. Why take the risk, then, by reinstating judges who have refused to play ball in the past, and why not stick with the pliant ones? Self-interest and party interest is far more important for them than some noble and lofty goals like an independent judiciary and rule of law.

The same principle holds true for Zardari and his ilk while he seekis every public office, including that of the president, for himself and his party. Democratic principles give him the right to claim the president’s office as the PPP and its allies have the majority votes in parliament and provincial assemblies. But Pakistan would be better-off with a non-partisan president and a person of stature and credibility. Zardari has low credibility due to his tainted past and recent actions. In fact, his sister will be more acceptable as president than Zardari, even though the country needs a national hero, a statesman, an academic or a scientist in this exalted office. The votes that the PPP got in the Feb 18 elections were for the party of martyred Benazir Bhutto and her heroic father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and not for Zardari. After having got rid of Musharraf, who cared more for US interests than those of Pakistan, the country cannot afford to be headed by Zardari, who would be even more vulnerable to American pressure and would forever remain mired in controversy due to his past and present actions.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahimyusufzai @yahoo.com

The News, 30/8/2008

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