THE BLOG

Islamabad Wire : Democracy Defeats Mob Politics in Pakistan

Most media coverage in the United States about Pakistan's recent political events gives the impression that the democratically elected liberal government has somehow been weakened by the outcome. According to this narrative, the conservative and Islamist opposition mobilized street protests and forced an unwilling President to restore the Chief Justice who had been removed from office by military dictator General Pervez Musharraf. The good news is that the narrative is flawed. The compromise conclusion of the stand-off over the Chief Justice's restoration to office, widely celebrated in the streets of Pakistan, is a triumph of liberal democracy. With the issue that divided liberal democratic forces for several months settled, Pakistan can now focus on its real problems -- the elimination of the terrorist threat and the poverty that has made Pakistan a hotbed for extremists.

Ultimately liberal politics and effective governance are about compromise, confidence building and flexibility. Democratic politics requires give and take and a willingness to negotiate. Nothing is final in politics and a single issue, even if it is considered the most important concern of the day by one party, should not be allowed to derail constitutional democracy or to take attention away from pressing problems like terrorism or poverty. That was always the view of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in relation to the demand for the restoration of an independent judiciary after the imposition of emergency rule by Musharraf in 2007.

Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and President Asif Zardari were always committed to the restoration of the Judiciary. Indeed, an overwhelming majority of superior court judges removed arbitrarily by General Musharraf were long ago reinstated. But the matter of the Chief Justice, who had become a symbol of judicial independence to some, was more complex. After the removal of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry an equally respected Chief Justice had been installed and the problem for the government was to find a way whereby the ousted Chief Justice could be returned to the bench without ousting his successor.

Some civil society activists, lawyers and media figures made the immediate restoration of Justice Chaudhry as Chief Justice a touchstone to test the government's commitment to rule of law. They criticized President Zardari for seeking negotiations over the matter as if negotiation is a dirty word. But in the end, a compromise had been achieved. Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry will return as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after the current Chief Justice's term expires on March 21. The threat of violence and the protest rally termed the "Long March" by the conservative and Islamist opposition terminated peacefully once the Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, announced the modality of Justice Chaudhry's return as Chief Justice with the full backing of President Zardari.

Our conservative colleagues in parliament from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) could have secured the same end by pursuing a reconciliatory approach instead of polarizing issues on streets. The PPP has always been open to discussing all matters with the opposition, including their demands relating to the judiciary. Events of the last week were most unseemly when we observed the PML-N leadership that used to call Shaheed Benazir Bhutto a "national security risk" suddenly exploit her words and image in an effort to embarrass her party and family. It was more than a political gimmick; it was an unspeakable desecration of our martyred leader. We should all be glad that this saga is now over and we can all hopefully return to the spirit of reconciliation and dialogue that defined Benazir Bhutto's' life.

Now it is time for Pakistani politics to move on not only in a spirit of compromise but according to the laws and norms of parliamentary democracy. If Mr Nawaz Sharif and his party object to policies of the PPP government of Prime Minister Gilani, then the democratic course for their party is to bring their objections before parliament for a full debate and a vote. They should make all their arguments in the National Assembly and Senate instead of on the streets, precluding the risk of violence and instability that distracts Pakistan from fully engaging the terrorist threat to our sovereignty.

If Mr Sharif believes that a change in government is warranted, he should have his party bring a motion of no confidence against the Prime Minister. If he feels that President Zardari is unfit to hold office, he should move articles of impeachment in the National Assembly and Senate. This is the rule of law. These are the norms of parliamentary democracy. In the end, history will look back on these critical weeks as a turning point in the maturation of Pakistani politics. Hopefully the history books will note that under great strain, the people's House prevailed over violence. Let it be said that in March of 2009 Pakistan chose democracy over mob rule.

In a commentary titled "Pakistan: Beyond a Showdown," the strategic forecasting organization STRATFOR made an observation that should receive attention from opposition activists and civil society members who were enthusiastic about confrontation. It said, "With the parallel rise of a jihadist insurgency and a civil call for the rule of law, Pakistan is becoming increasingly polarized between idealists and realists. The idealists are pushing a hard-line nationalist agenda that includes a confrontational approach to domestic and foreign policy matters, while the realists believe the internal and external situations must be dealt with pragmatically, whether the issue is the rule of law or cooperation with Washington in the fight against Islamist militancy."

STRATFOR warned that "considerable gains by the idealists" would "complicate counterterrorism efforts" and warned that the "jihadist forces challenging the writ of the state will be able to exploit the reluctance of the PML-N and its idealist allies to take a strong position against the insurgents." The report concluded that, "It is ironic that a movement to establish rule of law in a country that has largely been under authoritarian military dominance for most its existence could end up undermining the state itself."

Farahnaz Ispahani is a PPP Member of the National Assembly.