May Issue 2008
The Song Remains the Same
When Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif landed in Dubai last month to breathe life into his party’s motionless dialogue with the PPP leadership, he had a single concern on his mind: to protect and stabilise the nascent PML-N government in the Punjab. If the dialogue about the fate of the deposed judges had broken down, said one of Mr Sharif’s close confidants and a member of his negotiating team, it would have rocked our national alliance and “disturbed the Dost Muhammad Khosa government.”
The dialogue did make headway, and fortunately for the alliance, a compromise solution of sorts was agreed upon: all the deposed judges, including Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, would be restored on May 12 without, of course, dislodging those pliant justices whom General Pervez Musharraf had installed to get legal protection for his second martial law on November 3, 2007.
This seemingly happy ending of a nasty phase in the coalition government’s short life was never carved in the stone of principles, but as long as it warded off an imminent threat to the ruling alliance, it was kosher for both the PPP and the PML-N.
However, like all halfway house deals brokered by expedient politics, this one too had a price. Since the Dubai deal, the PPP has been on the receiving end of crippling criticism. It is now an established fact that the party’s present managers do not want to move a single judge from the Supreme Court bench and, to them, the restoration of the deposed judges is only possible if the restored justices “live with” their pro-Musharraf counterparts.
PPP’s official justification of this stance is that it is a legal matter: Law Minister Farooq H. Naek has argued on numerous occasions that while on November 2 the judges were dislodged unconstitutionally, the constitution has now been revived, and no judge, even the ones inducted by Musharraf, can be screened out through a politically-motivated process.
The reality is different. The PPP wants to tie down Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry to ensure that he is “completely neutralised.” Some PPP insiders, disturbed by the consequences of their leadership’s dalliance with the establishment, have admitted that their party leadership has told Musharraf that a revived Iftikhar Chaudhry would not be allowed to “pose any threat to his presidency.” They also say that the “revival plan would be designed such that the restored judges would always be outnumbered and outmanoeuvred by their other brother judges, led by Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar.” .
“Contrary to the public perception that the PPP’s fears centre on the issue of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), it is actually our top leaders’ understanding with the president that has led them to take this stand,” said a senior PPP leader, who requested not to be named because of the party’s new policy of designating specific individuals to talk to the media on this topic.
When asked why the PPP should be sticking its long neck out for Musharraf when they can polish their image by dumping him and championing the popular cause of the judges’ restoration, he said: “Musharraf in the saddle is a primary check on Mr Sharif’s political ambitions. Also, Mr Asif Ali Zardari’s advisors have convinced him that a restored Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry will be inclined towards Mr Sharif and he [Mr Zardari] would have no friends in the judiciary.”
This is familiar stuff. This is precisely how General Musharraf and his political allies, the PML-Q, tried to hold on to power but ended up hastening their defeat in the February elections. Clearly, Islamabad’s Byzantine palaces have not changed much since the February elections. Even now, vendors of wisdom and honour rarely enter through the main gates, and upon arrival do nothing except plan to leave — generally in disgust.
So when Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, that small-framed giant of a lawyer, quit the five-member committee, ostensibly formed to finalise the script of the resolution to restore the judges on May 12, he was only pointing to the amazing doublespeak of the ruling alliance on the restoration issue. His letter, addressed to the law minister, Farooq H. Naek, made a succinct case for the restoration of the deposed judges without much fuss but ended on a note of heartbreaking disappointment.
“Intentions are not honest and I cannot be party to a process whose purpose is to justify something that is as patently unconstitutional as to pack the Supreme Court with judges whose appointments are illegal and who took oath under the PCO after the November 3 martial law,” said Mr Ebrahim to Khawaja Asif, minister of petroleum, and a key figure in the dialogue with the PPP over the issue. Hours of persuasion did not convince Mr Ebrahim to change his stance. His most decisive statement of disenchantment was made to the minister in the following words: “I might have made many mistakes, but there’s one thing I have never done — I have never committed a wrong knowingly. Staying on the committee and agreeing with its actual agenda is wrong and I know it.” So does everyone in the alliance. But power has its own priorities and common sense is usually at the end of the list.
Important foreign forces are also peddling tremendous influence to keep things the way they are at the moment. The US embassy has become a veritable extension of General Musharraf’s Camp Office. In the past one month, embassy officials, ostensibly carrying Washington’s brief on counter-terrorism as their talking points, have aggressively lobbied for a consensus between the PPP and the PML-N that helps Musharraf stay in power.
Diplomatic sources in Islamabad say that Washington wants Musharraf to stick around as a fallback option in case the coalition government falters and fails under the weight of its own follies. “The US has some clout with the PPP because it brokered peace between them and the general. At that time, the three agreed that the general would usher in a coalition of moderate forces, and having seen it through, would wind up his work and leave the stage in 2010. That is what is being done with a slightly different equation involving the Nawaz-League as well,” says a well-informed western diplomat, whose main task is to closely monitor the country’s political scene.
This understanding seems to be working: PML-N has lowered its sights and is now willing to digest a Supreme Court packed with 27 judges, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry whose tenure and suo moto powers will be pared down to politically acceptable levels.
In a press conference in Lahore, where he announced the date of the restoration of judges, Sharif was most apologetic in tone when he described this climb down as part of the flexibility needed for the “superior goal of saving the coalition and a sovereign parliament.”
PML-N sources also report a certain fatigue with the restoration issue, complaining that this has sapped “vital energies of the coalition” at a time when the country is up trouble creek. While all the PML-N leaders have kept their rhetoric on the restoration issue a few decibels higher than the PPP, they also want to “get on with governance.” But the truth is that political and not judicial matters are blocking the path of governance. The two parties have come to power after a very long time, and they want to sink their claws deeper: the PPP at the centre and in Sindh and the PML-N in the Punjab. For them, all compromises are possible towards this end. The problem is that each compromise brings them closer to a presidency that is hugely unpopular, and away from the attractive causes they championed from the wilderness of the opposition. Of these goals, ensuring the rule of law and supremacy of the constitution was the main one, but it is not exactly in the top slot these days.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.