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An Incomplete Transition in Pakistan

The results of the recent elections of the Supreme Court Bar Association in Pakistan can be read as a vote by the lawyers against the Pakistan People's Party regime. The PPP government has been unable to carry out the essential reforms required to strengthen democracy in the country. The continued protests of the lawyers, manifest in the results of the SCBA elections, ought to remind the government that winning the popular electoral vote was merely the first step towards strengthening democracy.

LETTER FROM SOUTH ASIAnovember 8, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly10An Incomplete Transition in PakistanS Akbar ZaidiThe results of the recent elections of the Supreme Court Bar Association in Pakistan can be read as a vote by the lawyers against the Pakistan People’s Party regime. The PPP government has been unable to carry out the essential reforms required to strengthen democracy in the country. The continued protests of the lawyers, manifest in the results of the SCBA elections, ought to remind the government that winning the popular electoral vote was merely the first step towards strengthening democracy. S Akbar Zaidi ( is a social scientist based in Karachi.The elections of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) held on 28 October, ordinarily a somewhat routine and simple ritual, provide one of the more interesting and insightful com-ments on Pakistan’s current government, on the politics of the leaders of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and, particularly, on a debate which raged amongst Pakistani political activists, intellectuals and civil society actors between 3 November 2007 and 18 February 2008, when the national polls were eventually held. The SCBA elec-tions allow us to look at the substantial political issues that emanated from a process that began on 9 March 2007, when Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the chief justice, was dismissed by the then president, Pervez Musharraf.Ali Ahmad Kurd, a fiery and highly vocal lawyer, who has been one of the key leaders and spokesmen of the lawyers’ movement which started in March 2007, was elected president of the SCBA against a candidate of the PPP government. The government had tried to divide the law-yers’ movement by nominating a candi-date who was clearly seen to have official support. It was hoped, by thePPP, that the nuisance of the prolonged lawyers’ move-ment would come to an end with the latter’s victory, and that one of Pakistan’s most visible, articulate and resilient civil movements would have been brought to a close. The very long year, which began in November 2007, could have come to its eventual conclusion had the PPP candidate been elected. But, rather, the results only suggest that many of the problems the PPP had wished away are very much here and are a long way from being resolved.Overview of EventsIn order to understand the consequences of the results, one needs to summarise, briefly, the events as they took place. After the dismissal of the chief justice in March 2007, a large section of Pakistan’s lawyers started a movement to have Chaudhry reinstated. While a large number of law-yers took to the streets against the move, the decision by Musharraf was also suc-cessfully challenged and reversed in the Supreme Court itself, with the result that by July the chief justice was reinstated. However, there were a number of conten-tious issues awaiting a judgment by the Supreme Court in November 2007. The most important among quite a few was concerning the right of the chief of the army staff, Pervez Musharraf, to be elected (re-elected, actually) president while he remained in uniform. Thinking that the chief justice and the Supreme Court would move against him, president Musharraf dismissed a number of judges and imposed an emergency, which most called martial law, on 3 November last year. In addition, Musharraf made some important changes in the Constitution, which allowed him to select a new set of judges and to unilater-ally decide on the issue of the uniform.What had started essentially as the lawyers’ movement, morphed and gained momentum as a broader political move-ment of sorts. Spontaneous groups from numerous sections of society began a pro-test movement against the government’s imposition of an emergency. The agenda broadened at this time. Civil society groups now called clearly for the removal of Musharraf as a precondition to the holding of the national elections.For the most part, political parties were conspicuously absent from the movement for the restoration of Chief Justice Chaud-hry in the first part of the movement, although there was some involvement in the movement after the imposition of the emergency. Moreover, there was public knowledge of a deal between Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf, under which she would accept him as her presi-dent in his army uniform. In October 2007, thePPP allowed Musharraf to be re-elected president for a second term through Parliament, when the party decided to abstain from the vote. After Benazir’s assassination, her party was elected, in very free and fair elections, without a deal
LETTER FROM SOUTH ASIAEconomic & Political Weekly EPW november 8, 200811but with the National Reconciliation Or-der (NRO), that offered amnesty to numer-ous political actors who had been found guilty in the past, allowing them to con-test elections and take public office. Initially, thePPP worked with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) in a coalition, but the latter wanted all the judges to be reinstated and Musharraf sacked and tried. The coalition fell apart primarily on the issue of the restoration of the judges, and eventually, Asif Zardari and his PPP got rid of Musharraf although without holding him accountable for his many unconstitutional interventions. In a sense, democracy was restored in Pakistan and the people had spoken. However, a large part of the democratic and even elected agenda was incomplete. While the February elections were seen as a sympathy vote for the party that had been inherited by Benazir’s widower, the electorate did also want Musharraf to go and for the judges to be reinstated. The Democratic AgendaA key debate during much of the highly political year – March 2007 to February 2008 – centred around whether Pakistan could transition to a democratic system without overcoming key structural and institutional obstacles and constraints, and in a regime where the politics of opportunism dominated, with compromises with the military general as president and so on. Or, whether, political actors could have pushed things forward in transform-ing the political equation despite being calledadventurists andconfrontationists. While this was not a revolutionary situa-tion, those who were arguing for far greater political action felt that the military was on the retreat, that there was a great deal of political consciousness and support in favour of political parties, civil society and the lawyers’ movement, and that this was a good moment to push on even by advocating boycott of the elections. Nevertheless, the transitionists’ position wontheelectoral battle, and it was hoped that the return to gradual democracy would move the democratic agenda sub-stantially forward. This democratic agenda included at least three key issues, viz, the removal of Musharraf, the reappointment of all sacked judges, especially the reinstatement of the chief justice, and the repeal of all constitutional changes made by Musharraf, allowing the full restora-tion of the Constitution.Eight months after taking over govern-ment, it seems that of the three key items on democracy’s agenda, the PPP govern-ment has fulfilled only one. Those who still see a transition in progress continue to advocate a wait-and-see, slowly-slowly, approach, arguing that a hardening of positions would only cause the collapse of democracy and bring the military back. Those who argued against a docile transi-tion feel that it is not democracy which has failed, but it is the PPP, with its own inherent contradictions and perhaps its inability, or unwillingness, to make hard decisions that has failed.Not Enough ChangeIn some ways, the SCBA elections can be seen as a referendum on the performance of the PPP government with regard to at least their position on the reinstatement of the judges dismissed by Musharraf. One can read much more into the vote as well, such as it being a vote by lawyers against the government, not just for its position with regard to the judges, but also with regard to the full restoration of the Con-stitution prior to the 3 November 2007 position. Critics can read into this vote, a rejection of the PPP government’s overall political position regarding key interven-tions in the structure of the state and the Constitution. They argue that not much has changed in substance from the time when Musharraf was a weakened presi-dent. While the government has been dragging its feet on numerous economic and political issues, perhaps aggravating many things, there is a murmur of a ques-tion being asked: “What exactly has changed?” Clearly, there has been some change, but also clearly, not enough.Moreover, the elections also bring back to the fore the arguments of the tranfor-mationists, with a we-told-you-so retort, arguing that while the taking over of political office by civilian and political actors is a necessary condition for democracy, it is not a sufficient condition that pushes the democratic agenda forward. If key interventions are not made to undo and reverse the damage done by military generals, the arguments go, then demo-cracy is incomplete and, worse still, allows the return of the military into politics. The importance of this point of view needs to be underscored by the huge popular sup-port that the elected government had for most of the seven months it has been in power, when people would have been sup-portive of many constitutional changes and political and institutional arrange-ments. In addition, most of the political parties in Parliament would have also backed such necessary changes, reflecting a rare consensus. However, it has been the inability of the PPP government to carry through many of the essential reforms re-quired to strengthen democracy, and, rather than democracy failing, thePPP has disappointed. The continued protests of the lawyers, manifest in the results of the elections, ought only to remind the government that winning the popular electoral vote was merely the first step towards the strengthening of democracy. EPW on JSTORThe Economic and Political Weekly is now on JSTOR. Past issues of EPW from 1966 to 2002 are currently loaded on JSTOR archives. Institutions with access to JSTOR can read and download all EPW articles from 1966 onwards at these archives. EPW issues will be available on JSTOR with a moving wall of five years.Readers can visit for more information.Please note: While access to EPW on JSTOR archives are available only to participating institutions, EPW has been working to digitise its issues going back first to 1966 and ultimately to 1949 (Economic Weekly). The first batch of an expanded archives will be available on the EPW site from January 2009. These will cover 1989 to the latest issue, and by April 2009 they should extend up to January 1949. These archives will be available to all subscribers of EPW.

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