Even in the annals of Pakistan’s turbulent history, the high political drama that played out over the weekend was an extraordinary one. After an intense display of brinkmanship and an impending political meltdown, President Asif Zardari stepped back from the precipice by conceding to the opposition’s and lawyers’ demand to reinstate Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry as chief justice.
This defused a dangerous and potentially destructive confrontation between the government and the opposition, ending a stand off that had paralysed and pulverised the country. The spectacular retreat left an embattled Presidency weakened. It enhanced Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s credentials as a consensus builder, and established Mian Nawaz Sharif as a leader who correctly read and represented the public mood, strengthening his position as the country’s most popular leader.
The most important aspect of the decision to restore the chief justice was that it marked the triumph of the two-year campaign by the lawyers’ community for an independent judiciary and the rule of law. It was a rare and remarkable demonstration of a successful effort to hold rulers to account. The success of the lawyers’ movement marked the emergence of middle-class activism as a new and robust force in the country’s politics. The broad public and media support that this movement galvanised, in turn reflected the unequivocal popular desire for justice.
It generated a sense of national pride – and of confidence – and signalled the coming of political age of civil society. Civil society a vibrant media have emerged as powerful forces that will play an influential role in setting the political agenda in the future. This could well turn out to be a seminal and transformational moment in the maturing of Pakistan’s democracy. But it has also raised unprecedented expectations of the judicial system, which will now test the ability of the judiciary to live up to these demands. The diverse group of people and parties that vigorously supported this campaign did so for a multiplicity of reasons. How these differing, and at times conflicting, expectations will be met remains an open question. In being popularly cast as the first critical step towards an independent judiciary, the chief justice and other senior judges will be urged by public opinion to undertake the necessary but long-postponed reforms to rebuild the justice system and restore its efficacy.
There is also a cluster of contentious and potentially divisive issues that will have to be resolved: the fate of the judges who took the oath under the Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) and the future of the additional high court judges recently appointed by President Zardari, for which he was widely criticised for trying to pack the judiciary with party loyalists.
The landmark development has the potential of changing the country’s power dynamics by establishing the judiciary as an independent power base. If Pakistan has, at different points in its political evolution, functioned (or malfunctioned) under a diarchy or a troika of power, from here on, power is likely to be redistributed among the different organs of state in accordance with the Constitution, in fact and not just in theory. This opens the prospect of a strengthening of checks and balances, including the operation of curbs on the exercise of arbitrary power, which are integral to any democracy. But it will also intensify the challenge of ensuring harmony between state institutions and of their ability to perform their constitutionally-sanctioned roles, which has not always been the case in the past.
The spirit of accommodation shown by the government and the opposition in walking back from the brink has opened up an avenue for engagement rather than confrontation in the future. But this raises the all-important question of whether the spirit of compromise will outlast the present accord which, after all, materialised after the Army leadership’s decisive intercession, as well as intense diplomatic efforts by Washington and London. In other words, an extraordinary confluence of interventions and factors led to the compromise that averted a head-on clash between the government and the opposition.
Among the critical first steps is for the various political players to evolve and agree on the rules of the game and to respect one another’s mandate. The Charter for Democracy provides a framework to build such an understanding.
Several factors should urge both sides to sustain the spirit of reconciliation. One, their common stake in ensuring that the democratic process works and is not derailed. Two, the gravity and urgency of the challenges the country faces, from the deepening economic crisis to the growing security threats, all issues that require national consensus. The political standoff of the last several weeks was a costly distraction from this pressing agenda. Three, public expectations that the two major rivals cooperate to address the country’s problems rather than dissipate their energies in power tussles that fuel turmoil and uncertainty. And, four, international urgings to both sides will likely continue, not least because the international community has such a huge stake in Pakistan’s stability.
But all these factors can be trumped by the realities of power politics and the battle for Punjab. How the PPP-led government now addresses the issue of governor’s rule will determine the next phase of Pakistan’s politics. If the government resorts to political machinations on this matter, this will reignite the bitter feud and renew the mutual hostility that was on such stunning display in the days leading up to March 15. Whether or not the Zardari-led government ends central rule in Punjab and is prepared to respect the PML-N’s electoral mandate in the province will thus shape the opposition’s response and conduct. Moreover, the outcome of the review petition against the disqualification of the Sharif brothers will determine if politics will become more turbulent ahead or move in a consensual direction. This will also influence how smoothly Parliament is able to function.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has offered Mian Nawaz Sharif talks on taking the Charter of Democracy (CoD) forward, to which the opposition leader has responded by saying he is preparing to send him recommendations for the implementation of the document. Sooner or later this will turn on the fate of the presidential powers sanctioned by Article 58 (2) (b) of the Constitution, which President Zardari has been loath to relinquish by amending the Constitution, contrary to his repeated pledges and the commitments embodied in the CoD.
The outlook for government-opposition relations remains uncertain and fraught with the risk of a relapse into hostility. Many people pin their hopes on Prime Minister Gilani playing a more assertive role that would help keep the political temperature down and avert a repeat of the bitter confrontation of the past few weeks. But he will have to walk the talk. It will take more than good atmospherics and reassuring words to achieve a sustainable and constructive relationship with the opposition. For a start, this means reversing governor’s rule in Punjab and accepting the PML-N’s mandate, on which President Zardari’s stance is as yet unknown.
It is clear that the decision to reinstall the chief justice has addressed and resolved what had long been a source of political contention and instability. But other problems of a divided polity remain, and new ones may be unleashed if restraint and responsibility is not shown by the principal actors. The jury is out on whether the present pause in the political battle between the government and the opposition ends up being just that, a pause, instead of serving as a turning point in the country’s fractious politics.
The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.