Behind the popular victory in Pakistan

March 17, 2009

A mass movement to restore Pakistan's ousted judiciary has ended in victory. After a huge protest in the streets of Lahore involving clashes with riot police, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani announced March 16 that Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, would be reinstated by the end of the month.

Chaudhry, along with dozens more judges and jurists, had been dismissed in March 2007 by then-military dictator and President Pervez Musharraf. When Pakistan's new president, Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), came to power, he also refused to restore the judiciary, despite pledges to democratize the political system.

Chaudhry's ouster in 2007 touched off a mass protest movement that eventually brought down Musharraf. The dictator finally left office in August 2008, following elections held earlier that year that brought to power Zardari, a corrupt playboy and widower of PPP leader Benazir Bhutto.

Now, less than a year later, Zardari's own rule is shaken. Mass protests, culminating in a "Long March" to the capital city of Islamabad, have forced Zardari to agree to reinstate Chaudhry. New questions loom in the wake of this major political shift.

We asked Snehal Shingavi to answer our questions about the movement that won the reinstatement of Pakistan's popular chief justice.

JUST LAST September, Asif Ali Zardari won Pakistan's elections as a stand-in for his assassinated wife, Benazir Bhutto. What changed that brought hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis into the streets?

THE FIRST thing that has to be said is that the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry as chief justice is an amazing victory for the people of Pakistan. Thousands of people came into the streets to demand the restoration of democracy and the return of an independent judiciary. And they won.

The immediate political beneficiary of this victory is not just Chaudhry, but Pakistan's former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 coup. By aligning himself with the lawyers' movement that demanded the restoration of the judiciary, Sharif has greatly increased his popularity.

This marks a huge political comeback for Sharif. After the 1999 coup, Sharif was exiled to Saudi Arabia, but returned to Pakistan in late 2007 after Musharraf was forced to concede new parliamentary elections.

Demonstrators in Lahore, Pakistan, support the reinstatement of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry
Demonstrators in Lahore, Pakistan, support the reinstatement of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry (Babar Shah | PPI Photos)

Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Bhutto's PPP forged a tentative electoral alliance to compete with Musharraf's supporters. After the assassination of Bhutto in December 2007, Zardari became the PPP's candidate and, following elections last August, became the dominant partner in a governing coalition.

Zardari promised Sharif that Chaudhry and the other independent judges would be restored. But Zardari broke that promise--apparently because he fears the judges might revoke a special presidential law, issued by Musharraf, that exempts Zardari from corruption charges.

In recent weeks, Zardari and his allies have taken an even more confrontational approach to Sharif and the pro-democracy movement.

In late February, the Musharraf-installed Supreme Court ruled that Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, were ineligible to participate in electoral politics. Shahbaz Sharif had been chief minister, or governor, of Punjab, the most important province in Pakistan. Once the court effectively removed Shahbaz Sharif from office, Zardari used his power to oust the province's elected government and take direct control from the capital.

But while the international and even the Pakistani media have focused on the Sharif brothers, the real movers of change in Pakistan are the ordinary people who came out into the streets in the thousands and challenged the corruption and the hypocrisy of the Zardari government.

HOW COULD Zardari become so unpopular so quickly?

ZARDARI RENEGED on every one of his promises--promises to restore the judiciary, to abandon extraordinary powers granted to the president when Musharraf amended the constitution, and to work to stabilize the country. Zardari has done none of these things--and has more or less brought about a return to Musharraf-style politics, running the country as his own playground.

The most important of these betrayals was reneging on the demand to restore the independent judiciary. Most Pakistanis see Chaudhry as the one figure in power with a legacy of fairness and credibility. He brought corruption charges against high-ranking officials, stood up to Musharraf and investigated the cases of several "disappeared" persons. When Chaudhry was sacked by Musharraf, it brought people out into the streets in a spectacular way. So when Zardari failed to honor his pledge to restore Chaudhry to office, people got fed up.

Secondly, the government's cooperation with U.S. military strikes against the Taliban and its allies in North-West Frontier Province and Waziristan have angered the majority of Pakistanis. Even Pakistanis who don't sympathize with the Taliban are outraged over the large number of civilian casualties caused by the U.S. and Pakistani armed forces.

Third, the Pakistani economy is in shambles. Long lines for food have returned. Joblessness is up. Wide-scale power outages continue in major cities. People are genuinely worried about their futures. For these people, Zardari has become the symbol of all that is wrong with the Pakistani economy: corruption, elitism and nepotism.

HOW HAVE these developments affected the mood within Zardari's own party, the PPP?

ZARDARI'S ACTIONS in the last several months have really exposed the left flank of the PPP, which often touts its progressive credentials.

In fact, at every turn, Zardari merely turned to Musharraf's playbook, implementing the same kinds of repressive actions as the dictator. Zardari shut down the independent media, locked up activists, put politicians under house arrest and made protests illegal. This was Musharraf part two. What is amazing is how ordinary people remained undaunted in the face of this repression.

The question now is how this changes the political landscape. The return of the chief justice and the rise in popularity of Sharif almost certainly marks the beginning of the end for Zardari. That may take some time to work itself out, but it's almost a certainty. Even if Zardari remains in power, there are thousands of people who now have a taste of genuine people's power to keep the government in check.

WHAT ARE the main forces behind the opposition to Zardari?

There are really three main forces: the lawyers' movement; two conservative Islamist parties, Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and the Sharifs' PML-N; and the secular, civil society organizations.

The lawyers' movement is led by Aitzaz Ahsan, among others, and represents both lawyers and sacked judges who want a return to the rule of law. Most of their demands are centered around the restoration of the judiciary and constitutional reforms that would limit the powers of the Pakistani president.

The JeI and the PML-N are conservative parties with large religious bases and religious ideologies. But they are regular, parliamentary parties. The PML-N is the dominant party in Punjab, which was the scene of the confrontation with Zardari.

Nawaz Sharif's stock has really risen in the past months because he has stepped forward as a defender of the judiciary. This is ironic, because as prime minister in 1997, Sharif forced the removal of the then-chief justice, Sajjad Ali Shah. At one point, Sharif had his party activists smash their way into the Supreme Court building to intimidate Shah, who had earned Sharif's wrath by pressing corruption charges against him and was soon ousted in a power struggle.

These days, Sharif portrays himself as a defender of the judiciary and sounds increasingly populist. And along with the JeI, the PML-N has brought a good chunk of their followers on to the streets.

The majority of the people in the streets, though, are either tied to civil society organizations and NGOs, or are unaffiliated. Students, workers, middle-class Pakistanis--these really make up the largest chunk of the people who have come out in the streets. And their demands are fairly left wing.

One of the biggest problems, though, is that the left is still weak. It has been growing, but doesn't have the size or the reputation to lead the movement. The Labor Party of Pakistan (LPP), for instance, was a driving force, along with People's Resistance in the Long March. The International Socialists of Pakistan played a big role in the sit-in that happened in the Lahore High Court. These are impressive developments.

WHAT IS the outlook of progressives and the left?

THE MOOD on the streets is electric. One activist said that she hadn't seen Pakistan this way since the movement in 1969, which brought down Ayub Khan, another military dictator.

People are genuinely thrilled by the first taste of real power. One of the most popular chants on the Long March was "Jeena hoga, marna hoga, dharna hoga, dharna hoga," which means, approximately, "Some will live, some will die, but the struggle will continue." There's a fairly combative mood out there.

The repression has been pretty extensive in the lead-up to the Long March reaching Islamabad. Some 1,000 activists were rounded up and detained. A number of leaders went into hiding. People on the streets were attacked by the police.

But on March 14 and 15, things began to change. People on the march reported that the police were increasingly reluctant to attack protesters. Terrible things were done, undoubtedly, by the police. But several top officials in Lahore, including the district coordination officer and the deputy attorney general of Pakistan, resigned in protest against the crackdown on the protesters.

What's more, major fissures have developed in the PPP. High-ranking members, like Information Minister Sherry Rehman, have resigned over Zardari's decision to gag the media. Others have resigned because of the attacks on nonviolent protesters.

These are extraordinary developments. It's unclear how well poised the left is to take advantage of this political opening. But it's there, and there are some real opportunities to build a durable, powerful left in the coming months.

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