Political Uncertainty and Extremist Violence

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As the final 2007 issue of Criterion goes into print, increasing extremist violence and election-year political uncertainties have exposed the state’s inability to enforce its writ and demonstrated that sixty years after its independence, Pakistan has yet to establish a stable constitution-based political system.

The Political Process

Musharraf’s 6 October re-election as a military president is an innovation that has no parallel in the history of parliamentary democracy. Earlier he had given firm assurances that if elected he would relinquish his position as Chief of Army Staff and had nominated Gen. Ashfaq Kiani as his successor. A precedent has, therefore, been set which does not augur well for the accident-prone democratic process of Pakistan.

The Supreme Court’s earlier rejection of the writ petitions, submitted among others by Qazi Hussain Ahmad of the Jamaat-e-Islami, challenging the president’s eligibility to contest the election while retaining his army post was a 6-3 split decision. Among those who felt that there was sufficient legal justification to admit the petitions was Justice Rana Bhagwan Das, the second senior most judge of the Supreme Court.

According to a former Supreme Court judge, the rejection of the petitions was on the technical ground that article 184 (3) of the Constitution empowers the Supreme Court to only admit non-appellate cases when: (i) “there is a question of public importance; (ii) such a question involves enforcement of fundamental right, and (iii) the fundamental right sought to be enforced is conferred by Chapter 1, Part II of the Constitution. The opinion of the judge was that there was no infringement of fundamental rights and, therefore, the rejection was legally correct.

This ruling did not deter presidential candidates Justice (retd) Wajihuddin Ahmad and Amin Fahim from filing new petitions challenging Musharraf’s eligibility and requesting a postponement of the polls till the Supreme Court’s decision. The latter however allowed the election to continue but stayed the formal notification of the results till its ruling on the petitions.

The prevailing political uncertainty has been compounded by speculation, after the Supreme Court’s rejection of the earlier petitions, whether the judiciary had really become independent. Its landmark decision of 20 July reinstating Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhry resulted in jubilation and spawned the hope that an assertive judiciary would ensure constitutional rule.

Sceptics, however, believed that the 20 July decision was influenced by the massive popular outcry against the Chief Justice’s removal. They recalled the past and cited earlier decisions of the judiciary such as the 1954 Maulvi Tamizuddin case in which the Federal Court under Justice Munir upheld the dismissal of Constituent Assembly and the Asma Jilani case of 1972 in which the Supreme Court declared Gen Yahya Khan a usurper after his removal though it had validated his rule in 1969. Some of the same judges later endorsed Zia-ul-Haq’s coup against the Bhutto government and subsequently condemned him to the gallows. Several serving Supreme Court judges accorded legal sanction to Musharraf’s ouster of Nawaz Sharif. They endorsed the 17th Amendment, confirmed Musharraf as president and approved his continuation as Chief of Army Staff till the end of the current year.

The en bloc resignation from the federal and provincial legislatures of the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) plus five members of the ruling PML (Q) and a few others made the presidential electoral college, though technically intact, look unconvincing. With or without the support of the opposition, the ruling PML (Q) had the   required numbers to ensure Musharraf’s re-election.

What Musharraf lost in the process was the moral high ground because of the split Supreme Court decision, the absence of almost all opposition parties and re-election by the same National Assembly which was nearing the completion of its term. In effect the truncated legislatures imposed a president for the next five years on the new assemblies which will be in place after the general elections.

The National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) of 5 October is controversial and, far from promoting harmony, has the potential of generating political instability. It indemnifies politicians and bureaucrats accused but not convicted of corruption from 1986 to 12 October 1999 i.e., till the coup that brought Musharraf to power and, as such, it does not apply to Nawaz Sharif. Twenty years of plunder of the national wealth amounting to billions of dollars have been written off by the stroke of the pen. The main beneficiaries are Benazir Bhutto, the MQM and even some serving ministers of the government. It provides protection to legislators inasmuch as criminal charges cannot be brought against them without the approval of a parliamentary ethics committee consisting of members from the treasury benches as well as the opposition. Apologists for the Ordinance claim that it protects members of the National and Provincial Assemblies from arbitrary political victimization while critics maintain that it gives them a free hand to indulge in corrupt practices.

The NRO was promulgated after its final draft had been approved by Bhutto and it meets one of her demands for cooperating with Musharraf namely, the withdrawal of the corruption cases against her and her husband. So much for the PPP claim that the NRO was not tailor made to benefit the party. Political expediency and not the lofty ideal of reconciliation inspired the promulgation of the Ordinance. In the past the President declared ad infinitum that plundering politicians such as Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had no place in Pakistan. They were accountable to the people and would not be allowed to evade justice. The emptiness of the rhetoric is now self-evident.

Two of Bhutto’s four demands for cooperating with Musharraf have thus been met. The    corruption charges against her are being dropped and the president will relinquish the post of Chief of Army Staff. Musharraf also does not seem to be opposed to a third term for Bhutto as prime minister but this will require an amendment to the constitution for which  a two-third majority vote in the National Assembly is not available.  The only sticking point is Benazir’s insistence on removing article 58 (2) (b) of the Constitution which empowers the president to dismiss the prime minister. An instructive study on the powers of the president and prime minister is available in A. G. Noorani’s article “The Parliamentary System in South Asia” featuring in the July-September 2007 issue of Criterion.

Musharraf’s confidence, which probably stems from the disunity within the APDM,   could well be misplaced. The future political setup will be determined by the general elections. Two factors are of importance. First, Musharraf’s popularity is at its lowest and the PML (Q) is seen as a military-created entity. Second, Benzair Bhutto might have undermined her own political standing by her apparent cooperation with Musharraf for no higher motive than to promote her own political and economic interests.  Furthermore, her recent statements that she would allow the IAEA access to Dr. A. Q. Khan and her willingness to permit the US, under certain circumstances, to strike Taliban and Al Qaida outfits in the tribal areas is seen as a sell-out to the Americans.

The country is poised for general elections in an atmosphere of political uncertainty. Till now there has been little electioneering. None of the parties have announced their manifestoes. The political permutations and combinations that will emerge in the coming weeks are unclear. The country has more than its share of political chameleons whose loyalties change for no higher motive than the furtherance of personal ambitions. Despite its apparent disunity caused in large measure by the ambivalence of Maulana Fazlur Rehman and his JUI, the APDM leadership has declared that the coming political battle will be fought in the streets. Under the circumstances this could lead to political polarization and violence verging on chaos.

The Spread of Extremism

Chaos provides a fertile breeding ground for extremist violence. If the state is unwilling or unable to enforce its writ, then political space is conceded to obscurantist forces and this is precisely what has happened and continues to happen in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The promulgation and enforcement of draconian laws, administration, the collection and disbursement of revenues are in the hands of the Taliban and their Al Qaida mentors. The old system of administration through the political agents and tribal elders, which worked so well and for so long, has been dismantled.

The cancer of extremism has spread to the settled areas in the NWFP. This is largely because an inept administration has taken at best only half-hearted measures to contain the violence. To cite just one example, extremist elements had threatened measures against women attending educational institutions in Swat. This warning went unheeded and girls schools were bombed. The weak-kneed reaction of the authorities and their over emphasis on negotiations rather than use of force (when required) has emboldened the obscurantist forces.

The government signed an agreement with Maulana Fazalullah, the leader of Tehreek Nifaz Shariat-e-Muhammadi, in May under which he was not to use his illegal FM radio station.  Yet in mid-July he resumed transmissions and forbade girls from going to school.   As a result, nearly 2000 girls in Imam Deri, Swat were stopped from attending educational institutions by their parents because the cleric said it was un-Islamic. Similarly, earlier 25,000 children were deprived of polio vaccination as it was conveyed to their families through the radio that the vaccination drive was an attempt by the Jews and Christians to stunt the population growth of Muslims.

Residents of Islamabad and Rawalpindi were given a taste of what transpires on a daily basis in the tribal areas by the Abdul-Rashid duo of the Lal Masjid. Abductions, vandalism, oppression, threats of suicide bombings and the establishment of a Shariah court resulted in feeble negotiation attempts by the Government for 6 months.   The eventual military operation was inevitable, however, the delay was unnecessary as it emboldened extremist elements to be even more assertive. According to an editorial in the Daily Times, there were 558 terrorist incidents in Pakistan in the first six months of this year resulting in the loss of 1,019 lives, 853 terrorists were arrested including 32 Al Qaida operatives.

The government needs to adopt a tougher stand in FATA to be taken seriously.  It has to be proactive and not wait till chaotic conditions envelope our lives. Willingness to negotiate may remain an option, but this should always be from a position of strength.  With over 1500 casualties and more than 200 soldiers captured, the militants in the tribal areas believe that the government will eventually compromise.  They need to be disillusioned. The government has to craft an iron-hand-in-velvet-glove policy. A mix of force and economic inducements is required. Development projects need to be accelerated accompanied by firm military action when necessary.

The Political Parties Act of 1962 does not apply in FATA. As a result, no political party is allowed to function in the tribal areas although there are 12 seats reserved in the National Assembly and 8 in the Senate for FATA.  This provides an unopposed playing field for religious parties to gain control of the area through the management of mosques and madrassahs.  Khalid Aziz, a former NWFP Chief Secretary, in an article carried in the April-June issue of Criterion recommended: …the Political Parties Act should be amended and the tribal areas opened to all political parties. This will generate internal tribal dynamics and bring into play balancing forces. Subsequently, a constitutional petition was filed under Article 184(3) in the Supreme Court by the PPP for introducing the Political Parties Act in the tribal areas.

One point made by Musharraf has to be agreed upon.  It is necessary to have a strong and unified Government to battle the Taliban/Al Qaida elements in Pakistan.  At the moment, uncertainty in the centre and disjointed attempts nationwide are only strengthening the extremist movement.

The next three months will be crucial for Pakistan.  The army, politicians, judiciary and people of Pakistan all have their role to play.  Will it be too optimistic to presume that each one realizes the severity of the situation and acts accordingly?  Nothing is certain. Pace and unpredictability of events may make these comments outdated by the time it is printed.  The only point that we can mention with surety is that Pakistan is at crossroads, once again.