Back to Bedlam
When Pervez Musharraf was finally ousted last year, many thought it would herald the dawn of a new era for Pakistan and its political establishment. There was hope that factionalism and pettiness would be a thing of the past as questionably Benazir Bhutto's death, did more to bring Pakistan together than she ever did while alive. From the rubble two people emerged politically unscathed; Benazir's husband and not-so-obvious heir apparent, Asif Ali Zardari and the former exiled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It did not take long for them to dissolve their friendship in a bubbling vat of accusations and broken promises, and so cycle continued, hero one day to villain the next.
The recent trouble in Pakistan is worrying for a number of different reasons but to understand why it all flared up again one must trace the issue back to Pervez Musharraf and his Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry. Musharraf did everything he could to suppress criticism of his policies and actions but by beginning of 2007 he realised he was up against a formidable foe. The real problem was that his foe was in a position of power to openly question and act against various questionable and unconstitutional activities. As Supreme Court Chief Justice, Chaudhry made numerous rulings on governmental corruption including the infamous Pakistan Steel Mills case where the company was sold to a three-party consortium with a friend of the then seated Prime Minister Shawkat Aziz profiting enormously as a result of the deal. Amazingly Musharraf then proceeded to 'suspend' Chaudhry as Chief Justice, a move which was eventually questioned and won in court. By the middle of July he was reinstated to his post, but this was only the start of the problems.
The real troubles began when Musharraf realised his power and popularity were on the wane and then promulgated the National Reconciliation Ordinance in October 2007. The ordinance granted amnesty to politicians, bureaucrats and political workers who were accused of corruption, embezzlement, money-laundering, murder and terrorism. Interestingly the ordinance stated, “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in sub-section(1), the Federal Government or a Provincial Government may, before the judgment is pronounced by a trial court, withdraw from the prosecution of any person including an absconding accused who is found to be falsely involved for political reasons or through political victimization in any case initiated between 1st day of January, 1986 to 12th day of October, 1999” The dates were meaningful as they basically granted Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari across the board amnesty and paved the way for their return home a few weeks after it was announced. Many viewed it to be a marriage of convenience for Bhutto and Musharraf while it summarily left out Newaz Sharif as he was deposed on the 12th of October 1999, the very day the amnesty ends.
Chaudhry, along with Justice Mohammad Nawaz Abbasi and Mian Shakirullah Jan valiantly decided to stay the operation of the National Reconciliation Ordinance, but the writing was on the wall for both him and Pakistani politics. Within a month Musharraf declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution and issued a provisional constitution order in its place. Chaudhry reacted by forming an eight-member bench of Supreme Court judges headed by himself, and instantly quashed the declaration of emergency, provisional constitution order, and the suspension of the constitution. Aside from that he ordered all military and civilian personnel to ignore the order. Musharraf then arrested him and appointed Abdul Hameed Dogar as the de facto Chief Justice. This is when the public really turned on Musharraf and when Nawaz Sharif came back into the spotlight. His whole election campaign was based around the release and reinstatement of Chaudhury and the other 59 judges that had been summarily been booted from their positions. Sharif quickly understood that if Chaudhry was reinstated he would overturn the National Reconciliation Ordinance thus making Bhutto and Zardari ineligible to run for office as well as proving to the public that he is a principled man who cares for the real rule of law, not a Musharraf styled regime.
After Bhutto's death Sharif and Zardari eventually agreed to take part in the national elections and with public opinion and sympathy behind them they swept into power. But all was not well, Sharif had promised to reinstate the judges including Chaudhry and set a date for the May 12. It was to be the day that both parties finally showed their hands. Sharif was desperate for them to be reinstated because they would probably overturn the amnesty Zardari was living under, and for obvious reasons Zardari was opposed to the idea as it would have stripped him of his party position and would have ended his chances of being president. They met in London and the talks fell through, Zardari was not going to budge and in response Sharif's party announced that they were leaving the coalition government. Since then Sharif has tried unsuccessfully to run for public office but previous cases against him have held him back as criminals are barred from holding public office. In between Musharraf resigned, Zardari was elected President and showed no intention of reinstating the judges which could possibly throw him out of office. Sharif meanwhile has been desperate to run for public office but his criminal past not covered by the National Reconciliation Ordinance has got in his way time and time again. Things came to a halt when on the February25, 2009, the Supreme Court barred Sharif from contesting elections or holding public office a move which eventually played badly for Zardari even though he may not have had much to do with the decision.
The problem was that Zardari`s popularity decreased exponentially after he took over as President. Prices shot up in the country as Pakistan essentially sold itself to the IMF with over 7 billion Dollars in loans helping to prop up the fragile economy. There was increasing unrest in the border region with Afghanistan and Zardari was derided for his lack of political acumen and effectiveness. His reputation as a notoriously corrupt businessman also caught upon him as he was seen by many as Musharraf without a uniform. Sharif rode Zardari`s wave of unpopularity pointing his finger towards the government as the main conspirator behind his Supreme Court ban from politics and public office. Truth be told Sharif should not be allowed to run for office because for all intent and practical purposes he is a criminal. Funnily enough the same can be said for Zardari as he hides his criminal past behind the National Reconciliation Ordinance. But Sharif had one major advantage, the public was against Zardari, so when he was recently barred from running from office the public was outraged. Within a few days of his Supreme Court ban Sharif started up his mission to free Chaudhry again as it was his only hope to oust Zardari and squeeze his way back into politics. The tension spilled out onto the streets as Sharif`s activists agitated and he openly claimed that he would make the long march to Islamabad to free the real Chief Justice. Zardari placed him under house arrest but Sharif managed to escape and vowed to make his way to Islamabad.
That is where the current troubles came to boil, as Sharif escaped his house arrest and made his way to Islamabad the country was essentially in a state of emergency. Roads into the capital were blocked and riots turned violent as Sharif put Zardari under immense pressure to reinstate Chaudhry. With the country on the edge of revolution as Sharif put it, the government finally backed down. They avoided wide spread bloodshed and announced that Chaudhry would take over as the Supreme Court Chief Justice on the March 21. Sharif claimed a major victory and the government even managed to look magnanimous, but there is still a lot has to be resolved. In many ways Chaudhry and the other judges return would be problematic for many people. Zardari would be looking over his shoulder to see if the National Reconciliation Ordinance would be scrapped, that would pave a speedy way back to jail for Mr. 10%. The current Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani will also have reason to feel uncomfortable if the missing persons` cases were reopened, as he was head of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) when it was rumoured to have helped in abducting so many civilians. America should also rightfully be edgy as most of those people were handed to them by the Pakistani intelligence agencies. Whatever happens, Pakistan is not on the immediate road to recovery. One feels there is a lot left to this story and for a country that has spent more than half of its existence under military rule, it seems like that has become a viable option again.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2009