What is happening in Pakistan at the end of the spring season is historical in many ways. However, the situation is laden with risk so a cautious approach by the key players is warranted. In the wake of the Masharraf opera, the focus of a democratic transition in the country should not be overlooked by responsible institutions and active players.
Partly, people had vented their sentiments through the Long March and the restoration of the judiciary was a positive outcome, in addition to the restoration of Punjab government. This success was enough for the public, the media, the judiciary and one major political party in opposition, the PML-N that added its full weight to the Lawyer’s movement in the end, to get the decisions on the street and enjoy the show of power. The institutional framework had matured enough for the COAS, the PM and the President to open channels of communication and a democratic regime sustained this shock. In the long run, a win-win situation emerged so that the federal government completed its constitutional term.
The second public demonstration was led by Allama Tahir ul Qadri and again there was a show of tolerance and positive negotiation between the political leadership and un-elected stakeholders. No political party wanted to give a chance to adventurers and derail the democratic process. The judiciary, the media and the military also acted in a very responsible and peaceful manner. It was another achievement of the democratic forces vis a vis the adventurists.
Contrary to the long marches against a sitting government, this time a former president has provided himself as a test case for the implementation of the rule of law and democracy. The situation in hand has two sides. The judiciary has responded with fervour to Musharraf’s call to deal with him as per law. The way it is progressing, everybody is enjoying the opera and speculations are rife about the intentions of the decision makers. It is being debated whether October 1999 was a bigger crime or the case of incarcerating the judges a sin of a higher order. The line is not clear whether this is an issue of personal vendetta by the honourable judiciary or if it is the psychological game plan of the architects, i.e., the adventurers.
But it is clear that the country and the media - both national and international - is focused on the Musharraf opera and the ECP is feeling relieved for the attention being diverted away from the critical process of elections in Pakistan. Just three weeks to go and there is no cabinet in Balochistan where the lone CM is fighting all the wars. The MQM has already closed its campaign because of unadvertised operation in Karachi. Karachi is in competition with Quetta in terms of unrest. The ANP has taken refuge behind the four walls for their electoral campaign. The protocol security of the PML-N is not less than the ruling party. Even Imran Khan is now worried about his security.
The positive side is the trust gained by the judiciary that it can exercise its authority to uphold the rule of law which is the hallmark of democracy in any developed country.
The odds were very high for Musharraf and his advisors were trying to keep him from returning to the country, but someone evidently pushed him into the decision. Musharraf’s nomination papers have been rejected in all four constituencies. He came back to participate in the electoral process in the presence of the judiciary that he had tried to silence. He came back to contest against the same PML-N whom he had accused of hijacking his plane. He came back to contest against the same PPP which was about to impeach him as president. If there is further push to corner him then it may have positive repercussions where a Turkey-type model may emerge and all the accomplices of the October 1990 plot are put on trial. But here also lies the risk.
Again there are two options. One is about taking this line forward that Musharraf should be tried fairly. If other cases are opened, like Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, then accomplices from all quarters will be brought to book by the “due process of law”. But many of the potent accomplices/actors are either in high positions or are contesting elections. If this continues, then many of them will be chased by the police. In that case, we need to be suspicious about the legitimacy of the elections where a number of people will not be able to contest for being potential suspects in criminal cases.
The second option is to ensure that by arresting Musharraf, the judiciary is setting the record straight and establishing a precedent. Therefore, investigations into the bigger crimes will be shelved for when the elected government takes over. In the meantime, there will be a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and the guns will stop roaring in the name of electoral urgency. In this scenario, Musharraf may be released on bail in the coming days and will be busy in fighting his cases in the courts rather than contesting the elections.
It is suggested that the second option, with some adjustments, should be exercised. There should be an end to the sensationalism and people should focus on exercising their electoral options. The ECP can then concentrate on ensuring that voters all provincial and federal institutions work coherently for peaceful elections and there is good voter turnout. Political parties should spend this critical time to develop positive democratic traditions by showing tolerance and prevent political violence as a tool of canvassing.
The writer is a Governance and Security Expert based in Islamabad