Landmark Court Ruling For Democracy In Pakistan

** this article is available in the January-February 2013 issue of Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Subscription to the digital copy is only $10 a year; print is $44 a year. I highly recommend it as an excellent source of progressive political reporting and analysis on South Asia and the Middle East! ——


1989 was a strange time for political friendships in Pakistan.

“Sworn enemies who until a few days before were shooting each other’s workers” coalesced to force a collapse of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). From the religious right, Islamist Jama’at-e-Islami gathered forces with bitter electoral and ideological rivals, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the secular nationalist Awami National Party (ANP).  The Pakhtoon ANP along with Baloch nationalist leader Akbar Buhkhti, too, hastily swept contention under the rug, and disavowed earlier condemnation of the “exploiting” Punjabis to join Punjab’s Chief Minister, Nawaz Sharif.

This unlikely coalition of nine parties called itself the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), The Islamic Democratic Alliance. Offering scant alternative for governance, it nevertheless levied unrelenting criticism against the PPP for undermining national security through incompetence and insufficient patriotism, declaring the party’s government “a liability to the country’s security.” IJI’s jingoistic rhetoric drew on historical right-wing allegations that the liberal PPP was inadequate for the Islamic nature of Pakistan, and the coalition’s nine-member composition was a pointed reference to the conservative, nine-party, Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) that had rallied against Benazir’s socialist father a decade earlier.

Having gained incumbency with only a precarious majority, and dogged by rapidly escalating lawlessness and corruption, the PPP government capitulated quickly in the face of IJI’s bellicosity. Its five year term was aborted in 1990 via a Presidential dismissal, and new elections were hastily scheduled.

Gaining a strong majority at the ballot, IJI elected Nawaz Sharif as the new Prime Minster of Pakistan. Outgoing Benazir Bhutto, however, refused to acquiesce to defeat, vociferously alleging military engineering of the collapse of her government. The military’s role, though an open secret, found little audience among institutional investigative agencies, many among them having been eviscerated by General Zia’s brutal junta in the years prior.

Over half a decade later, in 1996, former Chief of Air Staff, Asghar Khan, petitioned Pakistan’s Supreme Court to investigate Bhutto’s allegations. The petition meandered through legal bureaucracy for another fifteen years. In 2012, Pakistan’s newly activist apex court seized the case and swiftly pronounced judgment.

This brisk attention came in a milieu of increasing scrutiny of a military hitherto wholly dismissive of legal strictures. A year earlier, following insistent requests by the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, the Ministry of Defense initiated an investigation of three retired generals for the mismanagement and possible pilfering of roughly 2 Billion Rupees from a military-run logistics company. A few months later, another retired general managing the elite Royal Palms Golf Club was determined by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to have engaged in illegal deals for personal profit.

In this atmosphere, sifting through allegations and evidence with dispatch, the court issued judgment on Asghar Khan’s petition on October 22nd. The Army Chief, General Mirza Aslam Beg, and former Director of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), General Assad Durrani, were pronounced guilty of electoral manipulation and extra-constitutional interference in the political process. Former President, and now-deceased, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, too, was indicted of misuse of public office. The court’s full judgment detailed a total of 80 Million Rupees distributed by the ISI and military, in coordination with the President, across the pro-military IJI: 3.5 Million Rupees were given to Punjab’s Nawaz Sharif; 5 Million to the conservative Jamaat-e-Islami; 10 million to Pashtun leader Mir Afzal Khan; 1.5 million to Baloch nationalist Akbar Bukhti’s son-in-law, among many others. The money, the judgment confirmed, was used to engineer and fund the IJI coalition to ensure a PPP defeat.

Great Significance, Limited Bite

While landmark in its indictment of former military leaders, the judgment’s immediate scope is limited and encumbered by significant political ramifications.

Although it declares Beg and Durrani unequivocally guilty, it explicates no legal mechanism for prosecution, leaving their arrest far from certain. Loathe to allow such senior members be tried and sentenced in a civil court, the Army can be expected to create strong impediments to their incarceration.

The order is also silent on the fate of the politicians complicit in election manipulation, and the Army is protesting against solely being assigned culpability. This has the additional consequence of shielding these politicians from immediate criticism just as the new election cycle is heating up.

The judgment also pointedly reiterates that the Office of the President, currently occupied by Asif Zardari, must remain politically neutral. Zardari sits astride both the Presidency and the leadership of the PPP. With general elections around the corner, and Zardari, the party’s face, expected to campaign vociferously, the pronouncement suggests that he must choose between his party’s electoral fate and his Presidency, a particularly unsavory choice for Mr. Zardari. Earlier court proceedings investigating charges of gross corruption against him have been stalled by Presidential immunity, which relinquishing incumbency would promptly reinitiate and likely result in Mr. Zardari’s arrest.

Yet, despite its shortcomings, the judgment represents a new trend in Pakistani civil-military relations. After a decade of excesses during the U.S.-supported junta of General Pervez Musharraf, the Army finds its once reified public image – one that was frequently deployed to legitimate coups and pro-Army legislation – rapidly deteriorating.

Its influence has ebbed from the heights of the 1990s, political primacy has eluded the Army. Former military lackeys – much of the IJI – have become fierce adversaries, and indeed, the closest thing to a pro-military party is Pakistan’s new Tehreek-e-Insaaf, a staunchly ideological party that happens to share some common ground with the military, leaving the latter few avenues for influencing politics.

The military, however, is not going down quietly and remains a potent force. While current Army Chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, is widely perceived to have little political ambition, the Army and the ISI have been active in attempts to influence the political proceedings, leading former Prime Minister, Yousef Raza Gillani, to recently allege it a “state within a state”.

A Wake-up Call for U.S. Policy

After General Musharraf’s acquiesce to the post 9-11 Coalition of the Willing, U.S-Pakistan relations hit a high, much as they had done under General Zia’s junta in the 1980s. Domestically, Musharraf enjoy early support: reeling from the predatory plutocracy of the prior decade, many Pakistanis had welcomed the coup.

However, as the War On Terror displaced millions of Afghans and Pakistanis, and Pakistan’s participation firmly etched suicide bombings into the country’s urban life, Musharraf’s domestic popularity fast eroded. The junta’s façade of “enlightened moderation” crumbling, the White House saw U.S. backing of Pakistan’s return to democracy in American interest. With US facilitation, Pakistan’s former political heavyweights, exiled under Musharraf, retuned under the protective amnesty of the newly drafted National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). An agreement shrouded in secrecy, the NRO ensured the returning politicians immunity from previous charges of corruption, embezzlement, money laundering, murder, and terrorism.

Public distrust of the resurgent political class thus, understandably, ran high. Their American backing, too, fuelled public suspicion; U.S. sponsorship of the political parties was not novel to Pakistanis. Emerging from the shadows of the martial law of the 1980s, the newly revitalized political parties were similarly perceived suspect by the many Pakistanis. Commenting on popular perception in 1990, the left-leaning Economic and Political Weekly called the PPP and the IJI “a brainchild of the US imperialism,” in an age when “civilian regimes are seen to be more suitable to fulfill the grand designs of imperialist strategy as opposed to the more naked military dictatorships.”

Despite this antecedent, American analysts were optimistic that U.S. support for the democratic process, achieved through structured and monitored disbursal of funds, shall be met with approbation. Yet, five years after the return of the parties, Pew reports that barely a tenth of Pakistanis support US assistance. Fewer still approve of their government, with support for the President frequently registering in the single figures.

Despite the shift towards supporting the political parties, American divestment from the Pakistani military is not unequivocal and, despite hiccups, the CIA and ISI maintain close ties. The two cooperate closely in matters of terrorism, and the widely decried drone strikes enjoy the willing countenance of Pakistan’s military leadership. America’s public support for the civil government, with tacit patronage of the adversarial military, betrays what many Pakistanis view as U.S. duplicity in achieving its policy objectives through a lofty rhetoric of democratic reform.

In that light, it would be a mistake for America policy makers to read the decision as a victory of the political parties over a once strident military, one that legitimizes American patronage of the former, or one that signals an ascendency of a political group that should be supported. It is, instead, correctly seen as a step in the progression towards a democratic process that rejects both that military junta and civilian plutocracies that have been the instruments of domestic repression while vying for American funds.

The Supreme Court’s decision, while fraught, is a welcome assertion of democratic independence. It is Pakistan’s tiny Tharir Square; countless more are needed before Pakistanis truly own their government. A clear-eyed assessment would recognize this and reformulate American policy to one that supports a true democratic change, and not just those who most assiduously assent to U.S. policy today.