Sustaining legitimacy —Rafia Zakaria

The evolution of the judges’ issue is an example par excellence of the construction of black and white, right and wrong, villain and hero in the realm of Pakistani politics

As was pointed out by numerous political analysts, the twilight of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s presidency was marked by a number of crucial miscalculations. Most prominent among these was the ill-advised sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on March 9, 2007.

It is possible even to assert that all of Musharraf’s actions hence, from the imposition of emergency to the power-sharing agreement with the late Benazir Bhutto to his eventual renunciation of the military uniform were all actions designed to reclaim the legitimacy he lost in the debacle over the chief justice.

The eventual demise of the Musharraf presidency is apt illustration of how the lack of legitimacy can condemn even the most powerful to grisly political deaths. As the lawyers’ movement grew, the murky details of the controversy — the fact that the chief justice owed his initial appointment to Musharraf, who by definition had no constitutional right to do so — were lost in the shuffle.

None of this is surprising; if anything, it attests to the reality that in a country where politics is increasingly an exercise in grandstanding and showmanship, the appearance of legitimacy is far more important than legitimacy itself.

In Musharraf’s case, the chief justice won the round. Iftikhar Chaudhry effectively capitalised on the confluence of political interests, the support of the PMLN and initially even the PPP to cast Musharraf as the itinerant villain bent on flouting the rule of law and imposing his own dictatorial will on the people of Pakistan.

As the drama of the broken coalition continues in Islamabad, the PPP has much to learn from Musharraf’s mistakes. In its political manoeuvrings to get Musharraf out of the picture, the PPP, after the February 18 elections, entered into two agreements. The first of these, the Murree Declaration, led to the formation of the now expired coalition between the PPP and the PMLN, who vowed to restore the deposed judges including the chief justice.

The original text of the Murree Declaration and its consequent elevation as an agreement of national consensus created a particular moral dimension in the political battle between pro-democracy forces represented by the coalition partners and Musharraf, who obstinately and illegitimately chose to hold on to a second term.

The issue of deposed judges became, in essence, the imprimatur of legitimacy conferring on its champions the appearance of righteousness so coveted by politicians. The renewed commitment to restore the deposed judges “within one day of vote on impeachment motion or resignation of President” promised by the August 7 agreement between the PMLN and the PPP at Zardari House once again attested to the power of the issue as a determinant of good guys and bad guys in Pakistani politics.

And herein lies the problem: the same issue that was responsible for the demise of Musharraf may similarly exact an untenable price from the PPP. Unable to recognise the judges’ issue as the key moral determinant of legitimacy in the eyes of the Pakistani public, the PPP reneged on the August 7 agreement. The chief justice was not restored to his position; the PPP chose to field its own candidate for president without (as the agreement had determined) the repeal of the problematic 17th Amendment.

In other words, the very issue that had been crucial in carving out a position for both the PPP and the PMLN as the stalwarts insisting on the rule of law, despite their chequered past was now sidelined by the PPP in its impatience to begin its Musharraf-free reign.

It is no great feat of political introspection to note that it is the appearance of moral legitimacy rather than its reality that determines outcomes in politics. The question that which of Pakistan’s political players is truly legitimate or unencumbered by the taint of sins past is admittedly a futile one.

The question then is a simple one involving political strategising and making claims. After the Murree Declaration and its recent August 7 reincarnation, the only party left in a position to gain political traction out of the judges’ issue remains the PMLN. In a dire miscalculation, the PPP, assured of the support of a ragtag number of parties and three provinces, decided that the judges’ issue could be deflated with the piecemeal reinstatement of most, but not all, judges.

Like Musharraf in his last days, the PPP is perhaps counting on the judges’ issue eventually losing its momentum as new political catastrophes such as the ongoing civil war in the tribal areas, the increasingly pressing economic crises and numerous other issues take centre stage. Like Musharraf, the PPP thought the eventual guarantee of power would provide enough of a political buffer against the taint of having failed to right the crucial wrong that marked the beginning of the end for Musharraf.

The evolution of the judges’ issue then is an example par excellence of the construction of black and white, right and wrong, villain and hero in the realm of Pakistani politics. Regardless of the actual moral truths behind the controversy, or even whether it would represent any real changes in terms of judicial independence or the access of ordinary Pakistanis to the rule of law, the depositing of Iftikhar Chaudhry has become the denominator of political good guys and bad guys.

After having wrested political support from Musharraf, it now stands to entangle the PPP in a debilitating series of broken promises and reneged agreements, all of which would wrest from it the legitimacy it otherwise enjoys as a democratically elected force.

If the PPP wishes to evade the crisis of legitimacy and the taint of usurping power, it needs to acknowledge the power of the judges’ issue as a symbolic denominator of good and evil, and legitimate and illegitimate in Pakistani politics. To do this, it must rescue its words and promises from being discarded as circumstantial and meaningless, and sustain its claim to legitimacy in the wake of its turbulent journey to power.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at

Source: Daily Times, 30/8/2008


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