October 01, 2007

Pakistan: Democracy disappointed

The hopes of an independent Supreme Court are dashed with a verdict allowing President Musharraf to continue his military rule and run for re-election as president, while state forces turn violent on protesters.

By Naveed Ahmad in Islamabad for ISN Security Watch (01/10/07)

Three days after winning a Supreme Court verdict to continue his military rule, the regime of Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf faces heightened political agitation.

Brute use of force against the protesting lawyers and journalists covering the political drama live on television from Islamabad's Constitution Avenue has pushed the media fraternity into the fray.

Nationwide, businesses were closed and courts remained abandoned as masses donned black stripes on their shoulders in protest against the controversial Supreme Court verdict and an Election Commission that is clearly pro-Musharraf.

After a fortnight of marathon hearings, the Supreme Court overruled half a dozen pleas seeking to disqualify General Musharraf from running in the upcoming presidential race while continuing to serve as the chief of the army. In a 6-3 verdict, the nine-member bench turned down the petitions as "non-maintainable," passing the buck to the explicitly pro-Musharraf Election Commission.

Shortly afterward, the Election Commission cleared the path for Musharraf to contest the 6 October presidential election, which will see the president elected by a parliamentary vote.

A fraternity of lawmakers expressed outrage at the decision of the Supreme Court, which they had thought become independent with the restoration of popular Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Musharraf had earlier this year suspended Chaudhry on dubious allegations in a move that led to mass country-wide protests and culminated in the Supreme Court's reinstatement of the popular justice. The Chaudhry-led court appeared of late to be emboldened against Musharraf, and many had predicted that it would not allow the general to run for another term as president without first shedding his military uniform.

"It is not a verdict but a presidential order prepared in the Army House," said Ali Ahmed Kurd, a top lawyer who had led a mass protest in support of the chief justice since 9 March. Kurd was rendered unconscious after being beaten by police on Saturday at the gates of the Supreme Court during an impressive lawyers' rally against the Election Commission.

A few meters away, Aitzaz Ahsan - the country's most respected lawyer and a vehement supporter of Chaudhry - was being mishandled by police for opposing Musharraf's candidacy for president.

Fearing a backlash in other parts of the country, the government blacked out private TV channels as they showed riot police brutally thrashing journalists covering the protests.

The prime minister and half of his cabinet present inside the Election Commission looked the other way while over 30 journalists were hospitalized, some with head injuries and even dislocated limbs.

Despite what the protesters view as a very disappointing ruling, Chief Justice Chaudhry has pledged to investigate the abuse of state power during the protests, and has summoned top government officials and requested video footage of all televised coverage of the protests, as well as hospital records. Regardless of his efforts to this end, it is unclear where the judge stands.

Back to the judiciary
Musharraf has sent out a blunt message to the entire nation, said Rashid Mafzool Zaka, an Islamabad-based political analyst and academic.

"Here is a regime with zero tolerance for opposition, judicial and political both," he told ISN Security Watch, pointing out that this entire crisis has unfolded on the doorstep of the Supreme Court.

However, another presidential candidate, Wajihuddin Ahmad, a Supreme Court judge who refused to validate Musharraf's military rule and stepped down in January 2000, still hopes to block the general's march to the presidential office. He told ISN Security Watch that he plans to file a petition Tuesday seeking to delay the presidential elections.

The country's constitution does not allow the outgoing legislatures to elect a president for a fresh term. It also does not permit a serving government officer to contest a political office.

Though Musharraf has indicated his willingness to quit his post as army chief by 15 November, he would have to wait for two years to become eligible - in accordance with the constitution - to contest for a public office.

Thanks to a weak and subservient Election Commission, the presidential polls are set to be held on 6 October, and Musharraf is clearly set to win.

In a bid to deprive the process of credibility, the opposition political parties have decided to resign en masse from the legislature, while the Islamist-dominated Frontier province assembly is being dissolved.

"If one of the federation units does not participate in the presidential election, the whole exercise becomes meaningless," constitutional lawyer Shaukat Siddiqui told local media.

However, Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP) remains the only non-government party to refuse to resign before the presidential elections. Instead, it has fielded a candidate to ensure "legitimacy" of the process.

Though Bhutto maintains that she could not agree to Musharraf's power-sharing formula, secret talks and soft statements remain, and it is unclear if she will effectively prevent the rest of the opposition's attempt to thwart what is widely viewed as an illegal election.

Federal Minister Shaikh Rashid Ahmad, for one, has high hopes for the Musharraf-Benazir power-sharing deal. "The secret contacts have never severed between the two of us [...] It is a matter of days and not weeks," he told ISN Security Watch in a telephone interview.

Bhutto has been shuttling between London and Washington over the past few weeks, and the mediation role being played by US State Department official Richard Boucher and British politician Jack Straw is no secret. The US would like to see Bhutto and Musharraf reach a power-sharing deal, as they view both as figures Washington can work with, despite mass protests in Pakistan for a return to democracy.

A senior PPP leader close to Bhutto believes the deal will become a reality once Musharraf sheds his military uniform as promised in November. Requesting anonymity, he claimed that both Bhutto and Musharraf were in direct telephone contact with each other.

Interestingly, Bhutto's planned return to the country in November after a decade of self-exile due to major corruption charges against her speaks volumes of her understanding with the military junta. She is clearly giving way for Musharraf to smoothly take over as president for another term. In return, she will expect the corruption charges against her to be eased and is banking on the post of prime minister.

Defining moment for democracy
In the words of Munir A Malik, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, after completing the first phase of Chief Justice Chaudhry's restoration, the lawyers' movement has entered its second crucial phase - the removal of General Musharraf. And despite this most recent major setback, the lawyers remained determined.

"It is set to be a long, drawn out battle, and we are prepared for one," he told ISN Security Watch. "Though it shocked the nation badly, Friday's verdict speaks volumes about the degree of the Supreme Court's independence."

Soon after the shocking verdict, civil society activists marched in Supreme Court premises carrying a casket meant to symbolize the death of the independent judiciary.

"The judges have let us down while we had much greater hopes from them," one disappointed voter, Zain Qureshi, a grocery shop-owner in neighboring Rawalpindi, told ISN Security Watch.

And many others echo his sentiments.

But analysts recognize that it is not only the judiciary that has dropped the ball here, but politicians as well.

Ayesha Siddiqa Agha, author of the book Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, writes: "The judges are clearly not willing to take the pressure of filling the gap created due to the absence of a popular political movement."

With journalists and lawyers joining hands after Saturday's open state violence, the politicians finally seem to be pulling their act together. The likely resignations from the legislature and dissolution of a provincial assembly would have far-reaching consequences for Musharraf's credibility.

"We will be able to sustain our movement at any cost but much depends on the Supreme Court, which has always validated the military takeovers," Imran Khan, from the partyTehrik-i-Insaf, told ISN Security Watch.

Undoubtedly, the US remains a crucial player in Pakistan's political crisis, and without Washington's backing, Musharraf could not have survived this long.

Ironically, both Pakistan and Burma (Myanmar) have captured mainstream media headlines over the past two weeks for the same reasons: The ruling Myanmar military junta is drawing Washington's ire for drowning democracy under military dictatorship, while the same situation in Pakistan is being supported by the Bush administration.

Naveed Ahmad is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Besides reporting for Pakistani TV channel, Geo News and Germany's DW-TV, he is also a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers group in the US.

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