Marches, protests, sit-ins and rallies are supposed to be the stuff of democratic politics. In their effort to agitate without violence and engender change without bloodshed, they supposedly proclaim the voice of people.
Much has been said about this aspect of democratic politics in the past several days since the initiation of the Long March. The imposition of Section 144 in some areas, and arrests of lawyers, political workers and even some human rights activists have all prompted critiques of the government’s inability to respect the integral mechanics of democratic protest.
Undoubtedly, the government in Islamabad and the ousted PMLN are locked in a deadly game of political push-and-pull. The Supreme Court’s decision banning the Sharif brothers from politics and the sacking of the Punjab government represented the government’s effort to alienate those political rivals it estimates as the most likely contenders for control over Islamabad.
Similarly, the Long March, with its attendant theatrics (rendered far more poignant than necessary by the government’s dismal overreaction) represent the PMLN’s effort to quite literally “bring the battle to the streets”. Add to this the seemingly endless capacity of the lawyers’ movement to come out in support of the political opposition (whoever it may be at a given moment) and you have yet another episode of an increasingly tired and annoyingly irrelevant saga.
Yet all those attempting to present the political wrangling surrounding the Long March as democratically sanctioned chaos fail to see how the sparring over the spoils of Punjab is but a sideshow in the political narrative. There are several crucial reasons that form the basis of this conclusion.
First, consider the dynamics of the March itself. Reports from various news sources have asserted that the number of people actually participating in the March at various points was hardly more than a few hundred, representing mostly the die-hard political activists and cadres of the PMLN. Add to this the smattering of lawyers that manage to emerge at every strike call involving the deposed chief justice and you have a paltry several hundred.
Indeed, as many analysts have already pointed out, had it not been for the government’s overreaction — mass arrests, roadblocks and bans on public assembly — much of the effort to garner public outcry and media attention would have automatically fallen flat on its face. The point to be noted thus is that the political reach of the March remained limited to the few political players involved, be it government officials or the ragtag group of lawyers who never seem to have any court obligations that interfere with their protest plans.
Second, the geography of the March belies the inability of either the PPP government or the PMLN to take their political game, and by definition at least the instrumentalities of representative democracy beyond the urban areas of Sindh and Punjab. According to ARY One news, the beginning of the March in Quetta saw but a few hundred lawyers boarding buses. Similarly, in Peshawar, while former MNA Sahibzada Haroon-ur-Rashid promised that tens of thousands of people displaced from Swat and Bajaur would emerge in support of the March, there was little evidence that his prediction would in fact prove true.
Indeed, in the most beleaguered areas of the country, the threatened towns surrounding Peshawar or the rural areas of Balochistan that are rumoured to be next in line to fall to the Taliban bore little evidence that the March was worthy of political mention. The importance of noting this geographic concentration is that it demonstrates that the PMLN, despite being the major alternative to the present government, is also unable to mobilise those areas of the country that are increasingly operating outside the system of representative government.
Further evidence of this can be gleaned from the events that have continued to take place in the tribal areas and Swat despite the preoccupation of parts of the country with events leading up to the Long March. As members of the lawyers’ movement were agitating at the blocked toll road in Karachi or in the streets of Lahore, Sufi Muhammad inducted four new judges in the sharia courts established in Swat in the Khwazakhela, Matta, Kabal and Varikot areas. It is, of course, no little irony that the movement so instrumental in staging the March against the government in Islamabad seems to have little to do with actually battling the very disavowal of the rule of law represented by Sufi Muhammad’s TNSM and its allies.
Even if these ideological recriminations and normative expectations of what the lawyers’ movement should do are cast aside, the central point remains that the game of representative democracy, and the battling over provincial governments and constitutional amendments remains at best a game with limited players fighting over short term gains in the limited geographical area where the government still has some control.
Both these factors, the limited numbers and the limited geography of the Long March are testaments therefore not to the ebullient pangs of a nascent democracy but instead to the avaricious fighting over power to extort resources from the state when there are no institutional guarantees of governance. Both the PPP and the PMLN are invested in having a chance at raiding government and provincial ministries in the short term. Their politics is borne not out of a flouting of challenges to democracy in the form of terror and religious extremism but rather because of them.
The political decisions made by both parties thus represent a system where future guarantees are elusive and where power can only be maintained through the ruthless game of either eliminating the opponent or being eliminated oneself. In the short term, the Long March represents another episode in this grisly high-stakes game of exclusion and eradication. In the long term, it stands for yet another moment in Pakistan’s troubling expedition into political oblivion.
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 email@example.com
Reproduced by permission of the author and DT.