VIEW: Beyond the Supreme Court verdict
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi | September 30, 2007
The opposition parties and the lawyers will have to ponder over ways and means to deal with the situation in the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgement
In functioning democracies, elections contribute to conflict management and consensus building. If the government and its political adversaries are stalemated on some key issues, they go to the voters for a new mandate. In Pakistan, elections have not generally played a consensus-building role because the dominant elites, especially military rulers, use the electoral process either to protect and legitimise the status quo or use elections to co-opt some political leaders for civilianising military rule. The voters are not normally given a fair and free opportunity to elect their rulers.
The latest judgement of the Supreme Court rejecting petitions against General Pervez Musharraf on technicalities is a big boost for the president because it has enabled him to pursue his election game plan. It has also given his team the confidence to steamroll opposition protests and ignore the impending resignations. However, this judgement has not defused the tension in the political system. The opposition will return to the Supreme Court with reference to the scrutiny of Musharraf’s nomination papers.
The ruling coalition and Musharraf are interested in the end product rather than the process. The end product is Musharraf’s re-election and the ruling party wants to secure it at any cost. They are not worried if the partisan management of the election causes disharmony and conflict as long as they are able to secure the political status quo in Islamabad.
The security arrangements in Islamabad and Rawalpindi by the local administration on September 27, the day Musharraf’s nomination papers were filed, showed that the government treated presidential nominations as a security exercise rather than a routine political affair. This reflected the paranoid military worldview that assigned a priority to order over law. All entry points to Islamabad were blocked and movement of people in Rawalpindi was also restricted as if the administration was protecting the capital city from an advancing enemy army.
Senior officials of the federal government and others in the official circles justified these restrictions in the name of protecting law and order. They wanted to pre-empt opposition plans to threaten law and order by staging protest marches in front of the Election Commission. It is an interesting argument because the government places the onus of respecting law on the opposition but wants to exercise its authority without paying any attention to the imperatives of law and justice.
The present tension between the government and the opposition can be traced to the arrest of an unknown number of opposition leaders and activists on the eve of Nawaz Sharif’s return on September 10. This was followed by more arrests on September 25-26 in order to pre-empt the opposition protest in front of the Election Commission. The arrested people included parliamentarians who were the electors in the presidential elections. Many were released soon after, while the remaining had to be released following an order of the Supreme Court on September 27.
While the government is determined to re-elect Musharraf, the opposition and the lawyers are equally firm in their resolve to stop him. Therefore, they are building pressure by mobilising their supporters and campaigning against Musharraf. Despite the failure of their attempt to disqualify Musharraf from contesting elections, they are expected to pursue their aim further through legal and political means.
The opposition will now pursue the resignation option more seriously. The All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) has already overcome internal differences on this issue and decided on September 27 that its members in the national and provincial assemblies would resign on October 2. The Chief Minister of NWFP would recommend the dissolution of the NWFP Assembly on the same day and the MMA members of the Balochistan cabinet and assembly will also resign, causing a ministerial crisis in that province. From a purely legalistic perspective, the presidential election may still be held but it loses moral and political credibility if one province is fully excluded and the other is partly absent from the electoral college. There is a need to ponder over the negative consequences on national harmony and federalism of holding the presidential election with an incomplete electoral college.
The divergence between the government and the opposition is reflected in the strategies of the major opposition candidates: Justice (retd) Wajihuddin Ahmed and Makhdoom Amin Fahim. They have not filed their nomination papers for seeking the top job but to make sure that the process is completed to the fullest satisfaction of law. They can be described as candidates for the process. These nominations are also meant to block the uncontested election of Musharraf. These opposition candidates maintain that Musharraf cannot seek re-election in uniform from the existing assemblies. They advocate that parliamentary elections should be held first and the new assemblies should elect the next president.
The presidential election appears to be a stage in the long-drawn confrontation between the government and the opposition. This means that the completion of the presidential election on October 6 will not defuse tensions. If Musharraf gets away with the re-election in strictly legal sense, the existing conflict is likely to escalate. Although the government thinks that the president’s re-election will increase their options to deal with the opposition parties and the lawyers.
The opposition parties and the lawyers will have to ponder over ways and means to deal with the situation in the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgement. It seems that the opposition will not be able to cause political change without putting its house in order and mobilising the people for their cause. They may have to take to the streets to change the Musharraf-dominated centralised political order. If Pakistan is to move towards democracy, political leaders will have to deal with the increased responsibility placed on their shoulders in this new situation.
Attention is now focused on Benazir Bhutto’s on again-off again dialogue with Musharraf’s advisors for evolving a mutually acceptable framework for cooperation. If she supports Musharraf’s re-election in uniform or abstains from voting in favour of Musharraf, the PPP is expected to lose support in the Punjab, if not in interior Sindh. However, if PPP parliamentarians resign from the assemblies, the government can create obstacles in Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan on October 18.
If the current controversies are not defused and the government and the opposition continue to drift in different directions, Musharraf’s expected re-election is no guarantee of a smooth second term for him. He is expected to face a host of challenges ranging from internal political disharmony and conflict to the escalating threat by Islamic extremists and socio-economic inequities. The Musharraf-led centralised political arrangements may continue for some time but they will not be sustainable as they’re not based on a broad societal consensus.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst