|Nawaz Sharif’s party is on a collision course with its alliance partner, the PPP, on the issue of reinstating dismissed judges.|
Nawaz Sharif (Left) with Asif Ali Zardari on April 22, after talks on the restoration of the judges. The alliance partners signed a pact in March to restore the judges within 30 days of the new government.
WHEN Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif joined hands after their parties emerged as the biggest winners in the historic February 18 elections, even toughened Pakistanis who thought they had seen everything got carried away by the euphoria of the moment.
But within three short months, that has been replaced by despondency. The romance is all but over, punctured by the one issue that was a bone of contention between the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or the PML(N), even back then, notwithstanding the assertions of the two leaders that they would not allow it to wreck their partnership.
The issue of the dismissed judges of Pakistan’s higher courts, including deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, was the proverbial poisoned gift from President Pervez Musharraf that jinxed the PPP-PML(N) marriage from the start, leading to its unravelling in early May.
After the elections, Sharif readily joined hands with Zardari’s PPP but made plain his reluctance to participate in the coalition government. Several political calculations may have gone into this, including the belief that the PML(N) would be able to force its agenda better by offering outside support to the government rather than by being in it.
But the one reason that the PML(N) publicly gave out was that Ministers had to be sworn in by the President, and as the party did not recognise Musharraf as the legal or constitutional holder of this office, it did not wish to take up Cabinet positions. In the event, the PML(N) joined the Cabinet, with its members taking the oath of office from Musharraf wearing black armbands in protest against him.
Since then, Sharif has never lost an opportunity to point out that the PML(N) agreed to join the government on “one and only one” condition: that their coalition government would reinstate the judges dismissed by Musharraf in his November 3, 2007 emergency.
Unconditional restoration of the judiciary was Sharif’s pledge in the campaign for the February elections. It is said to have contributed to his party’s spectacular performance in Punjab Province, even beyond Sharif’s own expectations, and he has reiterated many times that he will not be party to any compromise on this issue.
The March 8 Murree Declaration between Sharif and PPP co-chairperson Zardari stated that the judges would be reinstated by means of a resolution in the National Assembly and that this would happen within 30 days of government formation.
This was easier said than done. The “reinstatement by resolution” proved to be a tricky affair from the beginning. While the PML(N) and the legal community agitating for the reinstatement of the dismissed judges argued that all that it required to reverse Musharraf’s action was an executive notification following the parliamentary resolution, the PPP as well as independent legal experts warned against going down this road.
They argued that an executive notification would be simply struck down by the sitting judges of the Supreme Court and could bring on a confrontation between the presidency and the court on the one side and the government and the parliament on the other, with unforeseen consequences.
Instead, they advocated that the reinstatement be carried out through constitutional amendments. But the PML(N) and the legal community led by the Supreme Court Bar Association took the position that amending the Constitution to reinstate the judges would amount to accepting and validating the changes made to the Constitution by Musharraf.
At the heart of the disagreement was the difference in the ways in which the PML(N) and the PPP view Musharraf. While Sharif has vowed to get rid of the retired general who usurped power from him in 1999, the PPP has signalled a willingness to accommodate him now, perhaps with the possibility of giving him a dignified exit at a later stage.
For the PML(N), the restoration of the judges is one step in the bigger game to unseat Musharraf as the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary could well lead to the reopening of the legal challenges to the validity of the last presidential election.
Lawyers march during a protest in Lahore on April 24 demanding that the judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf be reinstated.
Several reasons are cited for the PPP’s unwillingness to cooperate in this plan, including the “deal” reached between the party’s assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf, by which he allowed her to re-enter Pakistan in return for her party’s support and also erased a host of corruption cases against her and her husband, Zardari, through the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO).
For Zardari, who has seen a number of corruption and criminal cases against him dropped in the past few weeks, the restoration of the judges carries the risk that they will revisit the NRO, which they did not view kindly when they were in office.
In interviews, Zardari has also demonstrated personal rancour against the judges and at the treatment he received at their hands during his long incarceration, visibly bristling at the suggestion that he should bring them back because they were the harbingers of democratic change in 2007.
Conspiracy theorists and Zardari-sympathisers also point to the pressure on Zardari from the U.S. and “the establishment” – shorthand for Pakistan’s entrenched intelligence agencies that play a major role in domestic politics – not to stray from the terms of the Benazir-Musharraf deal.
Whatever the reason, Zardari tied the resolution for reinstatement to a “constitutional package”. Details about this package that emerged in the Pakistani media spoke of several provisions to clip the wings of the restored judiciary, including fixing a tenure for the post of Chief Justice. This would require Iftikhar Chaudhary to step down by 2009 or 2010 instead of at retirement in 2013. The PML(N) made it plain that the resolution could not be tied to a constitutional package.
For sure, frantic efforts were made to resolve the differences. Sharif rushed to Dubai, where Zardari had retreated to spend time with his children, to break the deadlock in negotiations between the two sides. The April 30 deadline passed, with Sharif returning on that day with the assurance that he and Zardari had now agreed on May 12 as the date on which a resolution demanding the reinstatement would be brought before the National Assembly.
“The judges will be reinstated to their pre-November 3 positions on the same day through a government notification,” Sharif declared on his arrival back in Pakistan. It was not to be. More frantic negotiations followed, this time in London, but despite both sides repeatedly reiterating their commitment to restoring the judges, agreement eluded them on how exactly to go about this.
On May 12, declaring that he had tried his best, Sharif announced the withdrawal of his Ministers from the Cabinet. Notwithstanding his decision to stay on in the coalition and support the government on an “issue-to-issue” basis from the treasury benches, analysts have already pronounced this as the “beginning of the end” for the coalition. The PPP has also promised not to pull out of the PML(N)-led government in Punjab.
The PML(N) says it will stay on in the coalition so that the “forces of dictatorship” do not destabilise the democratic government. But Sharif’s pledge that he will fight “shana-bashana”, shoulder-to-shoulder, with the lawyers and will not rest until the judges are brought back puts him on a collision course with the PPP federal government, and a break-up of the coalition now seems only a matter of time.
The fallout has, of course, brought Musharraf and the parties allied to him, back into the reckoning, much to the disappointment and anger of those who celebrated the February 18 vote as a verdict against the military ruler. A British newspaper predicted in the immediate aftermath of the elections that the retired general was planning to call it quits in “days if not weeks”. The weeks have since turned to months, and far from looking up golf courses and bridge partners in anticipation of an early departure from the presidency, Musharraf is reported to be busy planning for the Sharif-Zardari honeymoon to end.
The retired general held meetings with the routed Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam), or the PML(Q), in an effort to change its leadership so that the party could become more acceptable as an alliance partner to the PPP in the eventuality of a breakdown in the coalition.
But with party president Chaudhary Shujat Hussain refusing to make way for a more PPP-friendly face, Musharraf is said to be encouraging a “forward bloc” in the party. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s meetings with the leadership of this bloc during a visit to Lahore set off speculation that the PPP and the PML(Q), or at least some sections of it, may ultimately join hands.
Zardari has already made peace with Musharraf’s other ally, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), by making it a partner in the Sindh government even though the PPP had enough numbers for a government of its own. While this was seen as necessary for running the province – the MQM has the street power to paralyse Karachi in a few hours if not minutes – analysts saw this as a not-too-subtle move by the presidency and Zardari to keep channels open to each other.
In all this, Zardari and the PPP have suffered a severe political setback. If the PPP co-chairperson’s moves to mend fences with the MQM, a historic and bitter political rival, have caused resentment within the Sindh chapter of the party, his reported dalliance with the PML(Q) will cost him further. Analysts predict that if he ties up with the PML(Q), especially after calling it the “Quatil (killer) League”, the implication being that its leadership engineered his wife’s assassination, a split in the PPP itself is a possibility. Even the intelligentsia, which supported the PPP through the decades despite all its shortcomings and defended the actions of its leadership, is now finding it difficult to keep up the effort.
By contrast, Sharif, despite his dodgy political beginnings as a Zia-ul-Haq worshipper, his right-wing leanings and his own treatment of the Supreme Court during his second term in power, has begun to emerge as the new messiah of the country’s democratic forces. The PML(N) leader, who was in the political wilderness just under a year ago, has benefited the most politically from the complex three-man chess game in progress in Pakistan.