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The Restoration of Democracy, A Historic Moment for Pakistan

Though Pakistan continues to face a number of challenges, in its struggle for democracy it is, perhaps, a lesson for other nascent democracies. By tabling a package of constitutional reforms that will repeal several aberrations adopted under dictatorships in the 1980s and 1990s, the democratic government of Pakistan has achieved a landmark in democracy and brought hope to people around the world.

Events over the past week have sent a ripple of hope and optimism through the nation and its diaspora as the government prepares to right past wrongs and prove that, even as dictators attempt to preserve their misrule through constitutional vandalism, the natural desire for freedom will always overcome their tyranny. English-language daily, The Daily Times wrote on Sunday,

With the strengthening of parliament, the provinces, local governments, dispute resolution amongst the provinces and with the centre, transparent appointments of chief election commissioners and the superior judiciary, the citizens of Pakistan can draw a sigh of relief and feel justly proud of the consensus-building inherent capability of a democracy, the odd hiccup notwithstanding. This is an all too rare moment to celebrate in our national life, and it would be best to let bygones be bygones and not labour the respective contributions (negative and positive) of all the parties to this historic compact.

Washington-based attorney and former Pakistani military officer Mohsin Awan wrote this past weekend that the constitutional reforms represent “The Greatest Moment in Pakistani Democracy.”

This week may very well be remembered in Pakistan as the greatest point in the restoration of democracy in its 63 year history. Yesterday, after a year long legislative effort led by President Asif Ali Zardari and his Pakistan Peoples Party in the National Assembly of Pakistan, agreement was finally reached on the most dramatic and sweeping constitutional changes in Pakistan’s history, restoring the 1973 Pakistani Constitution, which created a Pakistani parliamentary democracy based on the British Westminster model.

That Pakistan’s President, Asif Ali Zardari, has voluntarily pushed through a package of constitutional reforms that will repeal power consolidation by previous presidents is an unprecedented move that will secure his place in the history books as a leader who put his nation before his personal interest. Again, from Mohsin Awan:

Contrary to those who would belittle him, Asif Zardari is hardly a recent convert to the restoration of the 1973 Constitution. President Zardari had planned to complete the transition to democracy and to return the country to the foundations of the 1973 constitution from his first day in office. During his address to the joint sitting of the parliament last year, he advised the Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr Fahmida Mirza, to immediately form a constitutional committee comprising representatives of all political forces in the parliament to look at not only doing away with the arbitrary amendments including the infamous 17th amendment inserted by the dictator but also to settle the question of provincial autonomy according to the wishes of the federating units. He called upon his party in Parliament to enact a package of constitutional reforms as quickly as possible.

Irrespective of what his detractors may like to say, the fact is that Zardari has ungrudgingly consented, as was his original promise and intention, to forgo the powers conferred on the President under the 17th amendment thus implementing the public commitment of his wife and of our Party. He is not being “stripped of his power” as some have characterized it either out of ignorance or mischief, but rather has been in the vanguard of democratic change. The constitutional committee that was created at his request, specifically for this purpose, has completed its job and the reform package will be put before the National Assembly on Thursday and the Senate on Friday.

Letters to newspapers in Pakistan echo these sentiments of optimism among the Pakistani public.

Perhaps it can be dubbed the best constitutional package after the 1973 Constitution. It has a great deal of resemblance to the original 1973 Constitution, as the former like the later — is expected to be unanimous when it is finally passed by parliament.

Credit goes to all stakeholders in parliament, the media, lawyers and the President without whose generosity and cooperation such an achievement was not possible, at least in a friendly environment.

An atmosphere of optimism would develop in the country. At large, all provinces — especially the smaller ones — would regain their powers. A sense of deprivation prevailing in the smaller provinces would decrease to a considerable level.

After decades of constitutional manipulation and bold power grabs by dictators Ziaul Haq and Musharraf, Pakistan is teaching the world a lesson in democratic governance.

Court Appointees Should Be Independent

Just as Pakistan’s first democratically elected government in decades was on the brink of undoing a number of power grabs by past military dictators, a wrench has been thrown in the works by an opposition politician and party leader. Mr. Nawaz Sharif, head of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party (PML-N) is holding up passage of a package of constitutional reforms that would restore proper checks and balances on power.

Included in his stated reasons for opposition is that Mr. Sharif would like to see implemented a a seven-member judicial commission to nominate justices to the superior courts. The commission, as envisioned by Mr. Sharif, would include three serving judges of the Supreme Court, led by the Chief Justice of Pakistan – and a seventh member to be selected by the chief justice himself. This obviously stacks the court for the Chief Justice.

Pakistani newspaper Dawn reacted strongly to this proposal, saying:

The problem that will be created by a judicial commission with a majority formed by serving judges of the SC and a handpicked choice of the CJP is not very difficult to identify. The superior judiciary is designed such that while every justice on a court has one vote, the chief justices are administratively the ‘bosses’. So it is very unlikely that in the presence of a Chief Justice of Pakistan who wants a particular nominee, the other justices on the commission would disagree with him. Also unlikely is the possibility that a handpicked seventh member of the judicial commission will oppose the CJP’s choice. And even if the CJP is an accommodating sort and encourages developing a consensus nominee among the judges and his handpicked seventh member, it would mean that the superior judiciary would determine by itself — because of the simple majority it would enjoy on the judicial commission — who can or cannot become a judge of a high court or the Supreme Court.

A hermetically sealed judicial institution of that sort is antithetical to the principles of democracy. Why should the present membership of a state institution determine what its future membership will be? Remember that judges are free to vote with their conscience once sworn in because it is virtually impossible to remove them before they retire (which is how it should be). What Pakistan needs is a judiciary free from interference, not a judiciary that is independent in the sense of deciding its own membership. Any proposal by Mr Sharif or anyone else that would effectively give the superior judiciary a majority on the judicial commission must not be accepted.

In fact, Mr. Sharif’s recent surprise decision to block passage of the democratic reform package has been met with near universal disdain in the mainstream Pakistani media. English-language daily The Daily Times has had harsh words for the former Prime Minister.

As for the issue of the judicial reforms, it was at the behest of the PML-N that a seventh member was added to the judicial commission on the appointment of judges. The constitutional reforms committee conceded to that demand but now the PML-N chief has gone further to ask that the prime minister should consult the chief justice (CJ) on judicial matters and that the CJ should be authorised to appoint the seventh member. Mr Raza Rabbani is right in rejecting this proposal because the whole purpose of the judicial commission would be defeated. The logic behind having this commission is to ensure that there is a transparent mechanism in the appointment of judges by taking it out of the purview of any one person. Unfortunately, Mr Sharif’s strategy of escalating demands does not make any sense.

Pakistan has the opportunity for the first time to rid its constitution of anti-democratic power consolidation measures adopted under duress of military dictatorship. It defies all logic that this package of democratic reforms put forward by the democratic government and initially agreed to across parliament should be held hostage by one man seeking to further consolidate power in another office – this time the Chief Justice.

Pakistan has come too far since the days of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. The time for naked power grabs is in the past. If Mr. Nawaz Sharif cannot participate in honest democratic politics, putting the good of the nation above his personal interests, perhaps Pakistan needs to move on without him. Pakistan’s National Assembly should adopt the package of democratic reforms as they were agreed to, and get on with doing the people’s business.

American Media Misreporting Pakistan's Constitutional Reforms

As Pakistan’s parliament debates a package of constitutional reforms, it is important that these legal changes be viewed in the proper context. Unfortunately, anti-democratic talking points have crept into reporting on these developments in the American media. These talking points say that the National Assembly will be “curtailing” or “clipping” the powers of Asif Ali Zardari. In fact, the President has supported what is being discussed – a package of reforms that would redistribute powers previously seized by anti-democratic military dictators.

To understand the nuances of why this matters, a bit of historical context is in order. In 2008, Pakistan held elections that ushered in a new era of democratic rule. For the first time in decades, leaders selected by the people in open, free, and fair democratic elections governed the nation. It was a historic moment, and one that brought hope to the nation.

Despite the democratic elections, Pakistan’s government continued to operate under constitutional changes made by military dictators Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf. From the outset of his term as President, Asif Ali Zardari vowed to undo the undemocratic consolidation of power that occurred under military dictatorships so that the government could operate with proper checks, balances and distribution of powers.

Over the course of the past year, Prime Minister Gilani and President Zardari have worked closely to craft a package of reforms that would return the Pakistani constitution to its democratic foundation. Last November, President Zardari stunned many onlookers when he voluntarily returned command of nation’s nuclear arsenal to the office of Prime Minister, where it lay prior to being seized by Gen. Musharraf in 2002. One might expect such an act to be met with praise, but Zardari’s anti-democratic opposition pounced on the opportunity to define the act to their advantage.

Unfortunately, much of the right-wing establishment in Pakistan still sees democratization as a threat. For a President to voluntarily return authority to the proper branches of government was dubbed ‘weak’ and ‘unpopular.’ We respectfully disagree with this point of view.

Some far-right publications, like the English-language newspaper The Nation, have recently complained that Zardari is going too far in promoting democratic reforms. This has caused some to question whether right-wing groups in Pakistan are trying to derail the process of democratization before the next elections in the hopes that they can take power under the rules set by previous dictators.

Unfortunately, anti-democratic talking points have begun to appear in American reporting about Pakistan’s constitutional reforms. Take, for example, an article in the Washington Post this week that begins,

Pakistan’s Parliament is expected to pass constitutional changes in coming weeks that would vastly curtail the powers of President Asif Ali Zardari, effectively sidelining the unpopular leader of the nation’s weak civilian government.

This paragraph not only reads like an anti-democratic opposition press release, the language has a tendency to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people read that the democratically elected president is unpopular and that the constitutional reforms are meant to curtail Zardari personally, the more people begin to doubt the democratically elected president, and democratization more generally.

This is not unusual, of course, as we have seen recently the same phenomenon in American politics when opponents of President Obama’s health care bill repeatedly stated that health care reform was unpopular with the American people, only to see the bill’s popularity skyrocket when it became clear that it would pass. Whether American or Pakistani, people like to support a winning team.

Pakistani democracy is at a crucial moment in history – democratic and anti-democratic forces are wrestling over the future of the nation. Will Pakistan grow to become a free, democratic stronghold in South Asia? Or will right-wing forces turn Pakistan backwards towards the rule of Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf?

We respectfully ask that American journalists consider their words when writing about democratic reforms, and recognize that the package of constitutional reforms currently under discussion in Islamabad is not a slight to President Zardari, but the culmination of difficult and humble choices made by the democratically elected President to return powers to their proper offices, ultimately putting his nation before himself.

Constitutional Reforms Are A Move Towards Democratization

In January of this year, we came together to form a new organization, Americans for Democracy and Justice in Pakistan. Our mission is to educate the media, political leaders and the public about the importance of supporting democracy and democratic institutions in Pakistan.

Pakistan is a country whose history is full of politically-motivated attacks against civilian rulers and outside influences that have destabilized the country, often resulting in takeovers by the military. We want what the Pakistan people want: the rule of law and a government chosen by the people.

Our goal is simple: Support the Pakistani people’s chosen leaders, whomever they may be, against misinformation, misrepresentation and unfounded attempts to undermine their authority. We are American citizens but we still have close ties to our ancestral country and we welcome other Americans who support democracy and justice in Pakistan to join our cause.

To this end, we were particularly pleased to see Farahnaz Ispahani’s column published on The Huffington Post yesterday. Ms. Ispahani is an esteemed Member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, and her reflections on Pakistan’s long struggle for democracy are worthy reading for anyone interested in the current political situation in Pakistan.

Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah envisaged a modern democratic state for South Asia’s Muslims. His entire life represented respect for rule of law, justice and fairness. Starting his political career as an ardent nationalist, he earned the title of “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity.” His advocacy of a separate Muslim homeland began only after he was convinced that the Muslim nation would not get fair representation and protection without the creation of Pakistan. The Quaid’s conception of Pakistan was clearly rooted in the notion of a constitutional democracy. It is unfortunate that Pakistan’s leadership was hijacked within a decade of its independence by the dark forces of dictatorship. Within two years of the adoption of the 1956 constitution, the constitutional order was overthrown and the country did not get its first general elections until 1970.

Despite these setbacks, though, there has always been a strong democratic movement in Pakistan that continues today. As we write, the government is debating a package of constitutional reforms to undo anti-democratic measures enacted by dictators, including the infamous 17th Amendment promulgated by Gen. Musharraf.

The process of restoration of democracy would not be complete without the restoration of the 1973 constitution. A nation’s constitution is by definition a living document that can be amended through the constitutionally mandated process, reflecting changes and needs of the times. But Generals Ziaul Haq and Musharraf arbitrarily amended a consensus document to reflect their twisted thinking that only usurpers of power occupying the presidency through coups d’etat could protect the national interest. When President Asif Ali Zardari sought and secured election as President, some critics wrongly and unjustifiably attributed to him the desire to wield absolute power under the dictators’ distorted constitutions. In reality, President Zardari’s election to the highest office in the land was essential to complete the country’s transition to full constitutional rule. Had the presidency remained in the hands of a dictator, instead of being held by someone who has willingly accepted suffering for the sake of the struggle for democracy, the process of recreating consensus on a constitutional package would almost definitely have run into difficulties.

When Pakistan was founded, it was intended as a free and democratic state. History has unfortunately thrown up roadblocks, but we are now at a historic moment. A democratically elected President is preparing to voluntarily undo the expansion and consolidation of power by anti-democratic governments.

We are proud of our homeland, and we have faith in the greatness that it can achieve. For too long we have witnessed dictators and zealots abusing the vision of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Today we celebrate the return of the hope that inspired him and countless others – the birth of a free and democratic Pakistan.

Our security depends on aiding Pakistan

On Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s recent trip to Pakistan, he was reportedly asked by one Pakistani military official, “Are you with us or against us?” to which the defense secretary replied, “Of course, we’re with you.” But who precisely did the secretary mean by “you”? For both the U.S. and Pakistan’s interests, the “you” must mean the people who support the three principles of democracy, the rule of law, and civilian control in Pakistan — and, specifically, not those who would undermine them.

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