Pakistan's Lawyers: Pawn of the moment or tool forever?

by Khaled Ahmed writing in the weekly Friday Times

The lawyers are passionate, the retired judges are angry, and those who absent themselves from the country’s biggest display of righteous anger in history keep their mouths shut. The political parties are divided over how to interpret the phenomenon but are clearly grinding their separate political axes, looking for the right purchase on what the lawyers are up to. The anger of the wukla and the enthusiasm of the sahafi combined have not been able to create a consensus in parliament. And it is not a divided parliament, it is a house where everyone is everyone else’s partner in one thing or another.

Is the penny going to drop finally this week? At the time of writing nothing looked final and there were only two days to go for the deadline of April 30 when the National Assembly had to pass a resolution demanding restoration of the 60-odd judges fired on November 3, 2007. As the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chief Mr Asif Ali Zardari rested in Dubai, the reports were that the two parties had agreed to restore the 60 judges and increase the strength of the Supreme Court bench to 27 from the old 17 to re-accommodate Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry & Co without getting rid of the post-November 3 ‘PCO judges’ that the lawyers have been boycotting.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) kept saying that the PPP will deliver when the lawyers suspected a dilution of their demands in the final solution prepared by Mr Naek, the PPP lawyer. But then Mr Shehbaz Sharif went off to Dubai along with Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and Khwaja Muhammad Asif to talk about what if not the ‘solution’ they think would be rejected by the lawyers and the APDM leader Qazi Hussain Ahmad? The lawyers want the old chief justice restored but, if an excessively belligerent Justice (Retd) Wajihuddin is to be believed, they also want the present ‘PCO judges’ indicted and removed. After that presumably they want the restored judges to get rid of President Pervez Musharraf too.

Some lawyers are put off when told their movement has been politicised. They don’t want to be a tool with which the politicians want to get rid of President Musharraf. Some others assert that their movement is political but they don’t want to be used as a pawn in the struggle going on essentially between Nawaz Sharif and President Musharraf. The truth is that it is the judiciary which is once again being used as a pawn or a tool. They want to get rid of Musharraf as representatives of civil society.

Such was the level of politicisation in the judges’ restoration case, that even parliament was being threatened into giving the decisions the various sections of the public wanted. The bipartisan committee formed to arrive at a text of the resolution restoring the judges deposed on November 3, 2007, did its job but the leaders of the parties were scared about the reaction they will get to their formula.

But the environment was partisan, intent on dictating the decision it wanted. A number of newspapers and TV channels were clearly committed to the ‘prescribed’ outcome of the issue which overtly restored the judges and less overtly got rid of President Musharraf. TV channels argued whether or not the national parliament was sovereign compared to the judiciary. Most pro-judges or pro-Iftikhar Chaudhry sections claimed to interpret what the February 18 actually meant. The mandate was supposed to be: restore the judges and get rid of Musharraf!

Some journalists thought that the definition of the ‘mandate’ they had announced was final and should not be questioned. It became a common error to look at the 2008 electoral mandate as a kind of referendum. A referendum spells out clearly what the people want and it is usually single-item in its phraseology; whereas the mandate through elections is acquired on the basis of party manifestos. Yet the general election of 2008 was being presented as a single-item referendum favouring one mainstream political party and justified criticism of the other mainstream party despite its larger vote bank. The groundswell of ‘civil society’ movements seemed to favour this prejudgement and wanted to pre-empt the parliament on the question of how to restore the judges.

The lawyers’ movement as the spearhead of those demanding restoration of the judges became penetrated by political and religious elements. There were other copycat ‘civil society’ organisations, with ambition to become pressure groups in the future, that were hitting the streets too. All of them became rough in language and menacing in their prescriptions of what the parliament must do.

In Lahore it was not only Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry who was the ‘martyr of dictatorship’ and should be restored, but others like Dr AQ Khan (and fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar?) who were also on the list of ‘restorable’ martyrs. Processions purported to be of lawyers held placards carrying photographs of Justice Chaudhry and Dr AQ Khan. Some placards also condemned Denmark for blasphemy and demanded breaking of diplomatic relations with Denmark.

The political alliance APDM or whatever is left of it after its call to boycott the 2008 elections was ignored by a number of its members, grabbed at the Thursday ‘suspicion’ that the PPP-PMLN committees had actually run into a deadlock, to announce its next aggressive agenda. One PMLN leader announced that his party ‘will quit the federal government if the judges are restored with conditions like ‘minus one’ or a truncation of term of office in respect of Justice Chaudhry’. If this were happens it will be the ultimate step in the politicisation of the judges’ case. The PMLN was clearly leaning on the lawyers’ movement to increase it political clout.

That the furore on the part of an extremely partisan media and the politicians was before-the-fact, there is no doubt. The National Assembly was prorogued and will convene again in June to discuss the budget. Does this mean that the decision on the judges has gone by default? No, because the National Assembly can be convened on short notice again. But the idea is to bring the PPP under pressure and get it to sign on the dotted line and not intrude into discussion an earlier multi-party agreement called the Charter of Democracy, in some ways weightier than the bipartisan Murree Declaration. So immediate was the fury of revenge that no one was thinking of what the broader and many-sided mandate of the 2008 election really meant.

Regrettably there was violence accompanying the whole issue. People got killed and the lawyers’ community was now in the habit of counting their dead while emphasising the righteousness of their cause. These were not good signs at a time when an elected parliament was in existence and the world expected it to decide the matter of the restoration of the judges without coming under pressure from either the suicide-bombers or the lawyers’ movement. If a revolution was needed against President Musharraf, it had already happened in the 2008 elections; after that it was the elected parliament which had to decide what mandate it had and how it was going to carry it out.

PMLN chief Mr Nawaz Sharif didn’t take kindly the fact that his party’s ministers in the Gillani cabinet attended a prime minister’s dinner with President Musharraf present on the occasion. This was politics pure and simple. He did not not nominate his men for the National Assembly posts of chairmen of the various standing committees that actually run the business of the house when parliament is not in session. His precondition was that the judges should be restored before April 30 as per the Murree Declaration. His holding back on the nominations clearly belied his apprehension that the PPP may try to dilute the content of the Declaration as understood by the signatory parties.

On the other hand, PPP co-chairman Mr Asif Ali Zardari was abroad and still holding on to his old stance the 30-day deadline for the restoration of the judges mentioned in the Murree Declaration went beyond April 30. Also, he had committed to the restoration of the judges but had not gone along with the PMLN position that it should be unconditional. Will the PMLN go along? League hawk and federal minister Mr Saad Rafiq was quoted as saying that the deadline of April 30 could be stretched by a fortnight. Stretching of the deadline clearly meant that the PPP would be able to contain the restoration of the judges within a larger package for the judiciary based on the Charter of Democracy of 2006 to which both parties stood equally committed.

As for the removal of President Musharraf, the PPP was clearly not as motivated to get rid of him as the PMLN was. Mr Zardari said his party will look into the matter of impeachment when the ‘numbers’ are complete in the two houses of parliament. It goes without saying that these ‘numbers’ are not there for the impeachment but are already there for the passage of the ‘constitutional package’, unless, of course, the PMLN balks.

The PPP has moved resolutely in the direction of reconciliation with the MQM without which, as everybody agrees, it won’t be able to rule in Sindh. The PMLN has been objecting to this reconciliation. While it has not placed an embargo on the PPP moves in Karachi it does repeat the lawyers’ demand that inquiry should be held into the May 12 killings on the occasion of Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry’s attempt to go to Karachi last year. It might see the ongoing process of reconciliation between the PPP and the MQM as being against its interests.

The lawyers are willing to be a pawn in this political game which means they don’t mind being ‘useful’ for a day. They also don’t mind being a tool which means they will be useful for the long term if the politicians so desire. The constitutional package of 27 judges may not be acceptable to the hawks among them, which means that their leader Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan has some more exciting days ahead including getting elected and taking the lawyers directly into parliament.




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