By Ali Wyne
Although the battle in Swat has understandably captured international attention, it is more a commentary on Asif Zardari's unusual incompetence than it is a reflection of Pakistan's systemic challenges. One can better understand those challenges by considering the outcome of the lawyers' movement.
There was widespread agreement within and outside of Pakistan that Iftikhar Chaudhry's reinstatement as chief justice marked the beginning - albeit fragile and uncertain - of the country's democratization. In reality, however, it reaffirmed the need for (at least) three basic principles to inform Pakistan's political development. First, the rule of law is little more than a rhetorical construct if leaders violate it to maintain power and opponents support it to achieve power. Second, tactics matter. The lawyers' movement helped to bring Zardari to power by opposing Pervez Musharraf; now it is boosting Nawaz Sharif's clout by opposing Zardari. If it does not recalibrate, it may well continue to elevate the very opposition figures who will undermine the rule of law once they acquire power. Third, the divides that must exist for representative institutions to emerge - whether between leaders and opponents, or bureaucrats and activists - lose their meaning if those on either side are rewarded for subordinating principle to ambition.
It is useful to go back ten years in Pakistani history.
Recent events notwithstanding, Musharraf and Chaudhry were once close allies. On January 26, 2000, Chaudhry swore a new oath of office affirming Musharraf's decision to suspend Pakistan's constitution; he was subsequently appointed to the Supreme Court. Four months later, he joined the court's 11 other justices in declaring that the general's takeover through force was legal. On April 13, 2005, Chaudhry was one of only five justices to oppose petitions that challenged Musharraf's constitutional amendments and validate Musharraf's right to serve concurrently as army chief and president; less than a month later, he was appointed chief justice.
The relationship between the two soured when Chaudhry ruled against the government's privatization of Pakistan Steel Mills Corporation. Musharraf's subsequent actions - firing Chaudhry on March 9, 2007, declaring a state of emergency on November 3rd when his presidential eligibility was challenged, and sacking Chaudhry again after the Supreme Court had reinstated him - turned Pakistanis against him, thereby emboldening Zardari and Sharif. The two formed a coalition government shortly after Musharraf resigned, only to have it collapse a week later. Sharif claimed that Zardari had reneged on their agreement to restore the judges whom Musharraf had deposed during emergency rule.
Zardari did not vocally support the lawyers' movement while pressing for Musharraf's ouster, because he recognized that an independent judiciary could examine the October 5, 2007 National Reconciliation Ordinance that immunized all government officials who served between 1986 and October 12, 1999, when Musharraf took office. Nonetheless, Zardari supported the movement to the extent that it weakened the general and improved his own political prospects.
Pakistanis began pressuring him to reinstate Chaudhry shortly after he took office. Zardari heeded those calls not to advance democracy, but to maintain power (indeed, many suspect that he preconditioned his decision on receiving protection from Chaudhry's "judicial activism"): only a month into his presidency, after all, his approval rating had fallen to 19%.
Like Zardari, Sharif aligned himself strategically with the lawyers' movement, and has already accrued considerable dividends as a result. Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani invited him to join the cabinet so as to restore the image of the Pakistan People's Party, but Sharif rejected the offer, thereby enhancing his reputation as the upstanding outsider. He is also garnering support abroad. Sharif has been meeting with senior officials in the Obama administration to discuss possible mechanisms of Pakistani-American cooperation against the Taliban, cooperation that, some analysts argue, his inclination towards Islamic rule could facilitate.
Notwithstanding these endorsements, Sharif's record gives reason for pause. On November 28, 1997, hundreds of his supporters stormed the Supreme Court while it was hearing a corruption case against him. Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah was subsequently removed from office, and Sharif was exonerated of the charges that the court was considering. Less than two years later, Sharif cracked down on the Jang Group's publisher for not firing or demoting several journalists who had published exposes of his administration's corruption. The Supreme Court rendered a judgment in favor of Jang and demanded that the government allow newsprint to be sent to the group's headquarters. Sharif contested the ruling and had officials impound its newsprint supplies. Such abuses compelled many Pakistanis to embrace the coup that brought Musharraf to power.
Going forward, it would be mistaken for Pakistanis to support Sharif on account of Zardari's ineptitude - it is precisely this manner of expediency that has stunted Pakistan's advancement. Now is the time to call out all opportunists, no matter what stripes they may now be wearing.
Ali Wyne is a researcher in Washington, DC.