May 2, 2008

Waiting with bated breath

Filed under: NEW GOVERNMENT AFTER MARCH 24-2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 8:30 pm
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Reality check

Friday, May 02, 2008
Shafqat Mahmood

It is Thursday morning, as I write this, and there is still no news from Dubai. They met yesterday for seven hours without reaching a conclusion. This is a bad sign; but they have agreed to meet again, which means all is not lost. The omens, though, are not good. Those, who had been silenced by the election result and were down and despondent are starting to chirp again.

After keeping mum for months Musharraf has again defended his Nov 3 action of sacking the judiciary. The man has no shame or remorse for putting this nation through such turmoil for personal gain. He has also asked his political proxy, the Q league, to support the PPP in case the coalition breaks. Its boss, one Chaudhry Shujaat, has responded by coyly mumbling like a blushing bride, that they are not ready for it yet.

A very bad sign is the writings of those wired businessmen who have made testing the direction of the wind into an art form. They have at one time or another trashed or eulogised any and everybody, but with a keen eye on who is up or down. They called Zardari a crook not too long ago and Musharraf a loser after the election, but now suddenly have started to sing their praises and attack Nawaz Sharif. This is the same Nawaz Sharif they were gushing over just a month ago. To me this is a sure indication that these talks are likely to fail.

There are many reasons for Mr Zardari to find the restoration of the judges, and particularly of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, unpalatable, but why the somersaults? What was the need to sign a thirty-day deadline in Murree if he had no intention of keeping it? He now calls it a political statement. What does that mean? Is he saying that it was a devious trick to keep Nawaz Sharif with him? Whatever it was, it certainly fooled the entire nation. People believed him, and that is a mistake they are not likely to make in the future.

It is now obvious that Mr Zardari has a personal grudge against Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, and if what he says is true, then it is not without reason. Not hearing his bail application for two years was not right. For this, the judiciary must also do a self-analysis and acknowledge its mistakes. It is also true that the current chief justice, Mr Dogar, has taken many decisions that favour Mr Zardari. This makes Zardari somewhat beholden to him. It is also clear that he is comfortable with Dogar’s style of running the apex court. But are these the only reasons why Mr Zardari is reluctant about the restoration of the real judiciary?

No. While he will always prefer a “Dogar” over an “Iftikhar,” the answer may lie somewhere else. It is no revelation that the United States was not comfortable with the case of missing persons being pursued. Some of these people may have been handed over to it and taken to Guantanamo or other places. It is not something that the US would like to come out in the open. It is also not a secret that Mr Zardari has been told this. This is one factor that may be weighing heavily with him.

The other factor could be the stance of the military. While during the election process the Army leadership under General Kayani was keen to emphasise its distance from Mr Musharraf, this may no longer be true. PPP sources hint about oblique messages from the army suggesting that the party should go easy on the judges’ issue. There is no way to verify this, but what cannot be ruled out is pressure from Musharraf on the military leadership to send such a message.

Let us not forget that he has some leverage over it. Besides the personal association he has with General Kayani and other senior commanders spreading over many decades, he continues to be the appointing and sacking authority of service chiefs. While it is not easy for him to take precipitate action, this is a desperate man who has shown a penchant for reckless behaviour. He can go to any length to stay in office. Everybody by definition has to be wary of him.

The army may not be a factor in the judges’ issue, because at least I am willing to believe what it says publicly; that it has no desire to interfere in the games that are afoot between Musharraf and political players. It has also emphasised its adherence to the national command structure, which is an institutional commitment not to a person. But this does not stop Musharraf from trying to give the impression to the PPP that army is behind him. It is up to Mr Zardari and the party to make sense of it, but if they fall into the trap of giving too much space to Musharraf they may live to regret it.

The fact is that not since 1971 have the circumstances been so propitious for the political forces to establish ascendancy in the national political structure. After eight years of Musharraf’s rule, the people are fed up with non-political forces calling the shots. They want democracy and civilian supremacy. They want an independent judiciary and a free media. They will not take kindly to the military again trying to take over. But do the political forces, and particularly the PPP, understand the window of opportunity that has been provided by Musharraf’s misrule and unpopularity?

By all accounts Mian Nawaz Sharif does. It is for this reason that he is bending over backwards to keep the democratic forces together. He is reported to have told Mr Zardari in one his earlier meetings that he is willing to go to any length to keep the coalition intact for the sake of a democratic Pakistan. It is for this reason that he thought nothing of rushing to Dubai to try and convince Mr Zardari to restore the judiciary. If it still does not work, goodbye coalition, goodbye ascendancy of political forces and goodbye real democracy.

A simple choice is before Mr Zardari. Does he want to go with the political forces and establish a genuine democracy with civilian supremacy? Or does he want to hitch his wagon with the old established order of Musharraf and the military supported by the United States? This is where vision is going to play a very important role.

The conventional wisdom is that to rule in Pakistan you need America and the army. While not entirely debunking this, a new variant has appeared. To rule Pakistan you need America as a foreign partner but not as a master. And you need the support of the army but as a national institution taking orders from a democratically elected political leadership. What Mr Zardari and the PPP decide in Dubai will determine our future.


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