Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 August 2007
Issue No. 859
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Pakistan's wildcard justice

Pakistan's struggle for democracy has become a battle between the army and the judiciary, writes Graham Usher in Rawalpindi

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Afghan boys sit atop an abandoned Soviet tank. Afghanistan's Taliban insisted they would resume direct talks over 19 South Korean hostages but only if their demands -- chiefly the release of some of their prisoners -- are met

On 14 August -- Pakistan's 60th independence day -- 10,000 opposition activists came to the garrison city of Rawalpindi to praise their country and denounce its army. "Let us save democracy and decide once and for all that the job of the armed forces is to defend the country's frontiers and not to form or run the government," former Pakistan prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, told the masses via telephone from Dubai.

Sharif is in exile. But he hopes soon to return to Pakistan in defiance of its beleaguered military ruler, President-General Pervez Musharraf. Whether he does depends on the will of Pakistan's Supreme Court and its "simple but honest" chief justice, Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry. Musharraf will also have to abide by the decision.

"The chief justice is the most powerful man in Pakistan today -- he's running the government," says a government source.

Six months ago Musharraf tried to sack him, wary that the chief justice's activism might thwart his political ambitions. He was right. Chaudhry led mass, black-suited ranks of lawyers to resist the move and, in July, was restored. It dealt Musharraf the hardest blow of his rule. But it invigorated Pakistan's political opposition, says analyst Hassan-Askari Rivzi.

"Before the lawyers' campaign on behalf of the chief justice, the opposition was gripped by a sense of powerlessness. But now not only lawyers but political parties and civil society generally believe if it acts together it can bring change and affect government".

The Supreme Court will pronounce on Sharif's return on 23 August. It will be one of its lesser rulings in what promises to be a tumultuous time in Pakistani politics.

Any day now Musharraf will announce the date for presidential elections. He predicts, accurately, that he will be elected from Pakistan's existing federal and provincial assemblies. He also knows his candidacy will be challenged by appeals to the Supreme Court. The opposition will argue it is illegal for single-term assemblies to elect a two- or three-term presidency, and that it is unconstitutional for the president to remain army chief of staff. Musharraf knows all this. What he doesn't know is how the court will rule.

"It's a total wildcard," says the source. "Musharraf was fully convinced the Supreme Court would rule in his favour when he removed Chaudhry. Not only did the Supreme Court decide against him; it did so by massive majority. No one knows which way the verdict will go".

Instead government members are sketching "scenarios". If the Supreme Court rules that Musharraf can stand, he will be elected "president in uniform" for a second time. This should pave the way for new parliamentary and provincial elections. If the polls are to be believed, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) will form the next government, perhaps with its now exiled leader, Benazir Bhutto, becoming prime minister.

This at least is the script according to Washington, says a government source. The Americans want Musharraf to stay Pakistan leader "with or without the uniform," he says. They also want Bhutto in government because she is seen to be secularist at home and pro-American abroad.

But if the court rules against Musharraf, "all bets are off," says the source. In the worst case, Musharraf may impose martial law for the fourth time in Pakistan's history, crushing the opposition and laying stringent curbs on the courts. Would he really go so far?

The short answer is yes. On 9 August Musharraf was a hair away from announcing a state of emergency, ostensibly because of a pro-Taliban insurgency in Pakistan's borderlands with Afghanistan, but actually to stay judicial challenges to his rule. Washington, members of his ruling party and the army all moved to dissuade him. But the critical element was the army, says the source. "It doesn't have the stomach for martial law -- it doesn't want confrontation with the people".

It's easy to see why. The army has ruled Pakistan for 33 of its 60 years. But rarely has it been so hated as it is today. This is not only because of an anti-Taliban war in the borderlands that most Pakistanis see as being against its own people and at the behest of Washington. It is because of the grotesque inequalities eight years of military rule and lavish American largess has bequeathed Pakistan.

The army not only commands 600,000 men and 50 nuclear warheads. It is the major stakeholder in Pakistan's economy, owning a colossal $60 billion's worth of manufacturing, agricultural and other assets. Evidence of the gulf between the rulers and ruled can be seen in cities like Rawalpindi, where the garrison's smooth roads and leafy suburbs suddenly give way to teeming slums and open sewers.

For years ordinary Pakistanis put up with this, gripped by the same paralysis as their parties. But now -- after the successful chief justice campaign and the Taliban resistance -- they are beginning to feel that perhaps the tiger is made of paper. "For the first time I can remember, men in uniform are cursed when they walk the streets," says the source. "They are not used to it and they don't like it".

In these circumstances the army may advise their leader that, rather than martial law, it would be better for all if he spent more time with his family and the military in its barracks. Then free and fair elections can be held and, on their bases, a new civilian president selected. This, almost certainly, would be the preferred scenario of the opposition, civil society, the independent media and most Pakistanis. It is not yet the scenario of Musharraf, Bhutto and Washington. Over the next four months the judiciary and the army will determine which scenario prevails.

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