Stealing a march —Ejaz Haider
The restoration of the judges per se cannot lead to constitutionalism which requires the fulfilment of conditions that cannot be had in this polity in full at this stage for a number of reasons How does one analyse the Long March that culminated before the parliament building and reverse-marched after speeches by the leaders. It depends on where one stands.For the Pakistan People’s Party-led government (read: Asif Ali Zardari), the March and how it ended should be a matter of great satisfaction. The strategy Mr Zardari has adopted is increasing his choices and reducing those of his rival players. That is the basic benchmark of whether one is playing the game better than the rival players.Mr Zardari’s strategy is two-pronged: keep voicing support for strengthening the institution of judiciary while also, in principle, agreeing with the issue of restoration of the judges; and, two, resisting the demand that the judges be restored upfront while tiring out the lawyers’ movement. The latter is important because the demand, as formulated, conflicts with the pact the PPP has with General (retd) Pervez Musharraf and by extension with the army and the United States.The terms of that pact, essentially the place and position within it of Mr Musharraf, can only undergo a change if the army or the US or both review their support to Mr Musharraf. Until that happens, Mr Musharraf is secure, even if carrying the stigma of being a discredited and unacceptable president.But Mr Musharraf’s continuation in office also means the PPP cannot succumb to the demand by the lawyers to restore the judges upfront and face the possibility of another round of crippling executive-judiciary standoff. Such eventuality not only has the potential to create another crisis involving the Supreme Court and the Presidency but will also end up cutting the ground from under the government’s feet.The going is good for Mr Zardari because the lawyers’ movement has lost steam and, as was visible from the Long March, is now dependent largely for mobilised protestations on the political actors. While the APDM (All Pakistan Democratic Movement) parties, especially Jama’at-e Islami, are not much to write home about in the absence of any parliamentary presence, the big political player lending support to the movement is the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.That is also what makes Mr Zardari breathe easy.Being in power in the Punjab in coalition with the PPP and being a junior coalition partner at the Centre, the PMLN can afford to bark but not bite. Mian Nawaz Sharif has been holding aloft the judges’ cause and it makes eminent political sense for him to continue with that without really rocking the boat for a government of which he is an essential part.His brother, Mian Shahbaz Sharif, has won uncontested and taken oath as chief minister of Punjab. He is settling in and has big plans for the province. That again is understandable because Punjab is the PMLN’s bastion and the younger Mr Sharif has the desire and the capacity to do much good.But doing much good also presupposes stability and good working relations with the Centre. So even as the elder Mr Sharif continues to thunder, the younger needs to get down to doing practical work to improve governance in the province and consequently further strengthen the party’s political position.The strategy is compatible. The younger Sharif has to start governing; the elder Sharif needs to make noises because he has gained space and acceptability with the lawyers and civil society members. Plus, he needs to keep the pressure on the PPP even as he enters into an understanding with the PPP away from the glare of the “median voter”. But, and this is crucial to understanding the game, the elder Mr Sharif cannot afford to lose Punjab.The lawyers marched to or on Islamabad, depending on how one looks at it; the democratically elected PPP government let them be, as Mr Zardari had promised and which fits in neatly with his strategy; the democratically elected party, the PMLN, lent the lawyers support and made the right noises which underscores its strategy. Some lawyers, the radical and the younger ones, wanted to take the March to a more vociferous end but they can be excused for thinking that they were participating in this country’s Boston Tea Party.By now Barrister Ahsan knows the limits and limitations of the movement he has spearheaded. He should, having co-authored a book on civil-military relations. He was thus a stabilising influence on the lawyers and announced that the March had achieved its aims. For good measure he also announced a “train march”, which, except for the problem of semantics — trains can’t march — should be okay with Messrs Zardari and Sharif.For his part, the elder Mr Sharif has also gained politically by making Barrister Ahsan accept that in the future all decisions about what the lawyers might do should be made in consultation with him. Barrister Ahsan’s acceptance indicates that he is aware of what can and cannot be done.This also means that the lawyers’ movement will now be effectively controlled by the PMLN which, being a political party, will foist its own agenda and colours on it. To that extent, the movement, in its original incarnation, is dead. Mr Zardari, I have a feeling, is smiling.In a nutshell, the Long March should satisfy all those players that are playing the game within the given structural constraints. It should be a huge disappointment for those who thought — and still think — that the March could and did herald a transformation towards constitutionalism.As I have mentioned earlier in this space, the restoration of the judges per se cannot lead to constitutionalism which requires the fulfilment of conditions that cannot be had in this polity in full at this stage for a number of reasons. (That’s a topic to which we shall return shortly.) The best one can hope for is some political stability so the current gains can be solidified before elbowing on to make more political space.
Ejaz Haider is Consulting Editor of The Friday Times and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times