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BOTH BHUTTO AND SHARIF TO TAKE ON MUSHARRAF

by Beena Sarwar

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on Musharraf's martial law

(IPS) KARACHI -- As Gen. Pervez Musharraf doffs his army uniform and takes oath as the civilian President of Pakistan, two crucial issues stand out: continuing curbs on the judiciary and media, and general elections, scheduled for early January, that observers say cannot be fair and free under emergency rule.

And then there is speculation as to whether or not the political parties will boycott the polls.

Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both twice-elected former prime ministers, were among the candidates who filed nomination papers by Nov. 25. Bitter rivals in the past, they have over the past couple of years been dialoguing for a common cause: the removal of the army from politics in the country.

In May 2006, while still in exile, Bhutto and Sharif, respective heads of Pakistan's two most popular political parties, signed a ‘charter of democracy' in London. This was, as prominent analyst Hasan Askari-Rizvi commented, "The first major attempt by their parties to identify a common agenda for a political struggle against the military-dominated political order in Islamabad."

Ten months later, Musharraf's attempts to suspend the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar A. Choudhry catalysed what came to be known as the ‘judicial crisis' -- the lawyer-led movement to restore Choudhry, covered by some two dozen television news channels. The high-voltage protests and the media coverage rocked the country and Musharraf's popularity plummeted.

By October, United States-backed negotiations between Musharraf and Bhutto had forced the general into conceding political ground. Their political alliance allowed Bhutto to make a triumphal return to Pakistan on Oct. 18 -- marred by the bomb attack on her welcome procession which claimed some 150 lives.


Musharraf refused to allow Sharif's return, foiling his attempt to arrive ahead of Bhutto by ignominiously bundling him back in an airplane to Saudi Arabia where he has been based as part of an agreement with the monarchy since the army chief ousted him from power in October 1999. But Sharif was allowed to return after Bhutto's falling out with Musharraf over his emergency proclamation of Nov. 3. His return has been widely hailed as a positive step for electoral politics and democracy. "It will strengthen the democratic and political culture," said Bhutto.

Political observers cite the Saudi Kingdom's discomfort with a woman potentially heading the Islamic Republic of Pakistan as the basis for its rejection of Musharraf's attempts to keep his old foe out in the political wilderness.

The exiled politicians had to be allowed back because the National Assembly was completing its five-year tenure on Nov. 15 -- a first in the country's 60-year history. That day, Musharraf was also supposed to step down from his position either as army chief or president, the dual office that the parliament, elected in the 2002 general elections, had allowed him to hold for one term.

However, Musharraf made it clear that he would leave the army only if allowed to remain President. The constitution does not permit anyone to contest presidential elections until two years have elapsed after leaving a salaried government position.

When the Supreme Court appeared likely to prevent Musharraf from taking oath as President, the General declared a state of emergency. He promulgated a Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO), suspended the constitution, and required the justices of the Supreme Court and High Courts to take fresh oath. The independent electronic media was blacked out.

"If the constitution is the soul of a nation, then the judiciary is its heart," said former Supreme Court judge Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, "Our nation is without a heart and a soul just now."

Bhutto has said that a democratic government would restore all the deposed judges of the superior judiciary and declared that she is ready to form an alliance with Nawaz Sharif. "We are ready to forge an alliance with all moderate political parties," she told reporters in her home town Larkana, after filing her nomination papers.

Although Bhutto, Sharif and others -- like the imprisoned lawyers Aitzaz Ahsan and Ali Ahmed Kurd, heroes of the lawyers' movement -- filed nomination papers, the parties are keeping the boycott option open. "We are concerned that elections will be rigged but we don't want to leave the field empty," said Bhutto, adding that the U.S. was also pushing an alliance of moderate parties. "In the past the U.S. would support dictatorships but now it is supporting democratic forces, which is a sign of encouragement for all the democracy-loving people.'

Cricket hero-turned-philanthropist-turned-politician Imran Khan, on the other hand, tore up his nomination papers, refusing to contest elections in the present dispensation. Khan, recently released from prison where he was being held after attempting to address a students' rally in Lahore last week, said that to even file the papers would be a betrayal of the judiciary.

"For the first time in 60 years' history our Supreme Court has stood for an independent judiciary and rule of law and shunned the doctrine of necessity," said Khan. "Any politician, who participates in these fraudulent elections held under an unconstitutional and illegal PCO, will be strengthening a dictator." However, observers say that since his Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice) is basically a one-seat party, this decision does not dent the political situation.

The All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM), a coalition of all the opposition parties, including Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML), had called for the political parties to boycott the elections if the pre-Nov. 3 conditions were not restored -- including the judiciary.

This, essentially, is the sticking point, say observers. Musharraf, now a civilian president, will sooner or later have to lift the emergency orders, hold elections, and restore the independent media. Some channels like the radio FM 103 in Karachi and Geo TV nationwide are still shut down, causing huge financial losses to their ownership. In all aspects, Pakistan is likely to revert to the pre-Nov. 3 situation -- except for the judiciary.

There is near unanimous demand in the country, voiced by civil society organizations, lawyers and political parties, for this to happen. The majority of Supreme Court and High Court judges preferred to step down from office rather than take fresh oath under the PCO. These ‘non-PCO' judges now find themselves in the center of the controversy and the fight for a democratic Pakistan.

Their ‘peaceful defiance' has inspired many, including the ‘Musharraf generation' – well-to-do young urbanites from the consumer-oriented urban middle class that benefited materially from Musharraf's liberal economic policies -- corporate bankers and lawyers, chartered accountants, software engineers and businesspeople.

Investment banker Ali Assad, 26, initially moved by the lawyers' movement and the media coverage, was outraged into activism by the emergency. "I just wanted to make my voice heard. I felt that in a country where the highest judiciary can receive no protection, what is my standing?" he told IPS. "It scared me."

On Nov. 27, 17 retired judges of the Sindh High Court made public a joint signed statement declaring the emergency as "entirely unconstitutional." "A return to democracy is impossible without the restoration of all Chief Justices and Judges to their rightful position as of Nov. 2, 2007," they declared. The statement also holds that "any election carried out under a de facto martial law shall be farcical and illegitimate."

Similar declarations are expected from retired judges of the Supreme Court as well as the High Courts of the other three provinces.

"Right now, the only thing certain in this country," said Sindh High Court lawyer Zahid Ebrahim, "is that there is no certainty in the months ahead."



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Albion Monitor   November 27, 2007   (http://www.albionmonitor.com)

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