The long march and Pakistan's summer of discontent
The News, June 21, 2008
The summer of 2008 is turning out to be a summer of discontent. Economic and political issues are threatening to further destabilise Pakistan, which was already suffering from worsening law and order, the energy crisis, food shortages and growing hostility on the border with Afghanistan.
The lawyers-led so-called "long march," which some excited participants and analysts thought would result in the storming of the seats of power in Islamabad, ended in an anticlimax, much to the disappointment of all those Pakistanis who believe that only an independent judiciary can guarantee rule of law and a strong and durable democracy. Still it was a relief that the unprecedented march and gathering of people belonging to such diverse socio-economic groups and political beliefs passed off peacefully.
Credit must go to the organizers of the march who managed to retain control of the event despite heavy odds. The unexpectedly high turnout of participants in the "long march" and the presence of emotionally-charged political workers in the road show tested the nerves of Supreme Court Bar Association President Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan and his team of organizers. In the end they handled the situation calmly but not before earning criticism for failing to prolonging the protest through a sit-in, or "dharna" as it is commonly known, to ensure the restoration of the judiciary as it stood before imposition of emergency rule, or General Pervez Musharraf's second martial law, on November 2, 2007. The government, which initially considered blocking the unarmed long marchers, changed track subsequently and even tried to facilitate the holding of the event at the parade ground facing the imposing buildings of the parliament, the presidency and the Prime Minister's House. The smart move by the PPP-headed government ensured that there would be no clashes and, therefore, no bodies to parade before an eager domestic and international media.
Weather too played a vital role in rescuing the government. The summer heat was unbearable and, as Aitzaz Ahsan pointed out, the resources and logistics needed for a prolonged "dharna" in the heart of the federal capital were non-existent. Holding this mass event in June, one of the hottest months of the year, was bad planning. In fact, many people are saying the lawyers should have organized the "long march" as a last resort after having exhausted all means to get the judges honourably reinstated. Staging a "train march" next isn't a good idea and the dejected lawyers and their civil society supporters would not be very keen now to become part of another uncertain and direction-less project.
Also, Aitzaz Ahsan needs to make up his mind whether to stay in the PPP with which he has some fundamental differences, become an MNA or devote his energies fully to the cause of the lawyers and judges. Otherwise, he would continue to face brickbats and accusations that he was conniving with the PPP leadership and cannot go all out against the government of his own party. However, it would be wrong to doubt his intentions and sincerity. His spirited leadership was instrumental in building up a mass movement and involving other segments of the population in a campaign spearheaded by the lawyers. Still Aitzaz Ahsan and his organizing team must accept responsibility for their lack of planning and failure to foresee the problems that the long marchers were likely to encounter on their way to Islamabad.
Even the idea to name this vehicle-borne procession as a "long march" was wrong because it amounts to belittling the real long march that Chairman Mao and his brave communist colleagues staged while enduring every suffering including death and hunger. The Maoists' long march heralded the Chinese revolution and changed the destiny of China. In Pakistan's case, there have been many mini marches that were grandly named as "long march" but couldn't achieve the objective. Rather, the Pakistani model of the "long march" including the most recent one raised questions and triggered controversies.
The lawyers' movement, which was built upon the sacrifices of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and his 60 or so brother judges and sustained by the sweat and blood of the advocates, has been pioneering in its spirit and ideals. The fact that it has gone on for so long was on account of the sincerity of lawyers and the support of the civil society and the media. It has caught the imagination of the masses and from now onwards the political parties would be rated and, hopefully, made accountable by their leadership's stance on the issue of the judiciary's independence. The ruling PPP stands to lose the most if it continues to delay the reinstatement of the deposed judges and makes this issue conditional to other unrelated constitutional matters.
The PML-N, on the other hand, has rightly understood the mood of the people and tailored its policies accordingly. However, the PML-N would have to decide sooner rather than later to continue its farcical alliance with the PPP or sacrifice power, particularly its government in Punjab, for the sake of principled politics. Like the MMA not so long ago, it cannot remain both in power and opposition. The MMA tried to play this trick by enjoying power in the NWFP and turning itself into a friendly opposition at the centre. It ended up losing both positions when voters saw through its game and ensured its defeat in the February 18 elections.
At the other end of the fence is the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM), the alliance of political parties that boycotted the February 2008 general elections and is thus a fringe player in the country's politics. Qazi Hussain Ahmad's Jamaat-i-Islami, Imran Khan's Tehrik-i-Insaf, Mahmood Khan Achakzai's Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party and the Baloch nationalist parties that make up the important components of the APDM are striving to be heard outside parliament after having embarked on a rather unwise path by doing something – boycotting the polls -, that has never worked in Pakistan. The APDM is now threatening civil disobedience in the country if the PPP-led federal government tried to stop its proposed movement for reinstatement of the deposed superior court judges and removal of President Musharraf.
The APDM has no stakes in the present government set-up and it would be happy if this was to unravel prematurely and new elections were held. But the PPP, ANP, MQM and other parties represented in the assemblies would surely protect the current arrangement and ensure its survival. Even the PML-N, the party closest to the APDM in terms of long-term goals, would not like to rock the boat, at least so soon after the polls, because the electorate too may not want to take part in yet another electoral exercise at this stage. Thus any APDM movement would be seen as a campaign to oust the democratic set-up and trigger uncertainty.
The writer is executive editor of The News International based in Peshawar. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org .net.pk