Over the past five years, Pakistan’s courts were widely criticized for pushing the boundaries of reasonable judicial oversight and taking an aggressively adversarial role against the previous Pakistani government. Many observers assumed that the judiciary’s behavior was the result of a personal dislike for former President Asif Zardari on the part of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other judges. Whether or not that was the case, the judiciary’s activism did not end with the Zardari government earlier this year – something that does not bode well for Pakistan’s democracy.
As the dust settles on Pakistan’s elections, Nawaz Sharif is gearing up to lead the country for a third time, and experts in Washington seem to be feeling cautiously optimistic. Many US-Pakistan experts expressed relief that Sharif won over Imran Khan, weighing Khan’s proposed hardline policy with the US and his lack of foreign policy experience in contrast to Sharif. At the same time, analysts realize that the dynamics of the US-Pakistan relationship will change under Sharif’s administration, as he will be more likely to push back against US demands than the People’s Party. This new dynamic will require the US to pursue a tactical relationship that is cognizant of both the shared and dissimilar interests of the two countries, potentially leading to greater stability.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and current President Asif Zardari, was elected Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – the nation’s largest political party – following his mother’s assassination in 2007. He was a 19 year old Oxford student thrust into the center of politics during a volatile time in Pakistan’s history. Despite his young age, however, Bilawal has emerged as an outspoken voice for democracy and progressive values in Pakistan. He has consistently spoken out against terrorism, being one of the few to openly and strongly condemn the assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer, and reiterating his determination to defeat the extremist mindset he holds responsible for the attack on Malala Yousafzai, a 14 year old education activist.
Despite these principled stands, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has been criticized for his precocious rise in politics by those who see him as the beneficiary of a political dynasty. The PPP was founded by his grandfather who served as its Chairman until his death at the hands of a military tribunal in 1979. Bilawal’s mother, Benazir Bhutto, took over as Chair of the party in 1982 – a position she held until her assassination in 2007. Bilawal was elected to the position in the aftermath of his mother’s death in what many believe was an attempt to provide a sense of continuity and prevent a fracturing of the party after losing its charismatic leader.
In an interview for Charlie Rose, the young PPP Chairman addressed the issue of politics and political dynasties in Pakistan directly.
As much as political dynasties are not ideal, and Bilawal admits as much in the interview, it is important to consider them in context. Bilawal was not a dauphin inheriting a throne, but a symbol of continuity and hope in a time of chaos and fear. We should also remember that political dynasties are not inherently undemocratic. Here in the United States, our history is filled with political dynasties, many of which produced great leaders. From the founding of the United States, when a teenage John Quincy Adams first accompanied his father to Paris, to the Kennedys and, most recently, the Bushes, our own democracy has seen dynasties come and go without the introduction of a hereditary aristocracy in any real sense. This is due in large part to the fact that, despite the influence some families obtain, the democratic process requires the consent of the voters who judge individual candidates on their merits, not their pedigrees. If a leader does not represent the people who elected him, he will be replaced in the next elections.
No politician should be granted special consideration because of his or her last name. But neither should they be summarily dismissed. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is coming of age politically alongside Pakistan’s democracy. He should be judged on the merit of his leadership, not the peculiar historical events which led to his rise. So far, the people who elected him don’t seem to have any regrets.
With general elections expected early next year, Thursday’s “by-election” for the National Assembly seat vacated by former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was watched closely as a bellwether for what a post-2013 Pakistani government will look like. Based on the results of Thursday’s vote, it may look a lot like the present government.
In 2004, TIME magazine reported that the brutal gang rape of Mukhatr Mai “sent shock waves across Pakistan.” For her strength in standing up to challenge the practice of honor rapes and killings in rural villages, the magazine named Mukhtar Mai one of Asia’s Heroes. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof dubbed her, “The Rosa Parks for the 21st Century”. Seven years later, the latest chapter in Mai’s story has come to a close, and justice remains elusive.
Last week, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the men who gang raped Mukhtar Mai, freeing all but one. Human rights groups in Pakistan are publicly speaking out against the verdict.
They expressed concern over the long delay in dispensation of justice. “The victim was raped in 2002 on the orders of a local panchayat. The Chief Justice of Pakistan took a suo motu notice of the case in 2005. And despite the intervention it took more than six years to come up with this decision, which is a source of concern for the women of Pakistan.”
They feared that the decision might further strengthen anti-women parallel legal and judicial systems and mechanisms in the country. “The criminal justice system too is not pro-women and is patriarchal in nature. Impunity is the order of the day.”
But Mukhtar Mai is not giving up. Her legal counsel, Barrister Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, announced plans to file a petition seeking review of the judgment, and Pakistan People’s Party parliamentarian and presidential media advisor Farahnaz Ispahani Tweeted that President Zardari was personally requesting the government look into the case.
Sadly, the media response to the Supreme Court’s decision has taken a back seat to headlines defending Pakistan’s spy agency. Some of Pakistan’s more liberal journalists have spoken out against the injustice, lambasting Pakistan’s Supreme Court for “rendering a heinous crime such as gang rape almost unpunishable.” But much of the more conservative Urdu media has avoided in depth discussion of the issue. In response to one notorious case, Pakistani journalist Sana Saleem wrote an open letter to popular talk show host Mubashir Lucman for his harsh, unsympathetic treatment of Mukhtar Mai on his show.
If Pakistan’s media hasn’t paid much attention to Mukhtar Mai’s case, however, Pakistan’s government has. Last week, President Zardari instructed Interior Minister Rehman Malik to “take every measure to ensure protection to Mukhtaran Mai.”
In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, politicians have spoken out against violence against women and pledged to provide security and legal aid to Ms. Mai as well as to women across the country.
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Women Wing Sindh Information Secretary, Sharmila Farooqui, said here on Saturday that the government is committed to provide full protection and justice to needy women in Karachi and other parts of the country, besides providing legal assistance to rape victim Mukhtaran Mai in her decision to file a review petition in the court.
“Women in Karachi are performing their duties with dignity and courage after the government enacted the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act and passed the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill last year. The government has also established a women police station in Karachi and more such stations will be established across Sindh,” she said in a statement.
This is the root of Mukhtar Mai’s cause – educating people about the rights of women, protecting women who are threatened by violence, and working to change both attitudes and outcomes in a manner that ensures greater respect and justice for women in Pakistan. Working together, government leaders and human rights organizations have the opportunity to provide a brighter, safer future for Pakistani girls and women. They deserve our support.
Last night’s PBS NewsHour featured a segment on Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) parliamentarian Sherry Rehman whose support for reforming the nation’s blasphemy laws has made her the target of threats from extremists. In the clip below, she talks to NewsHour’s Margaret Warner about the rising tide of pro-democracy moderates in Pakistan.
The President of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association, Asma Jahangir, warned of creeping “judicial dictatorship” and an attitude of intolerance towards other government institutions following a recent Supreme Court decisions. Though the Chief Justice may believe that his court is acting in the best interest of the nation, it is important that he allow other institutions to grow and develop independently.
At issue is the appointment of retired Justice Deedar Shah as chairman of the National Accountability Bureau, the nation’s primary anti-corruption agency. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ordered Justice Shah to step down following claims by opposition politicians that the retired Justice is a supporter the governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). According to Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) spokesman Siddiqul Farooq, the constitutional requirement for consultation on the appointment “means seeking the consent of the opposition.”
Ms Jahangir does not take issue with the need for a consensus-based consultation, but strongly objects to the court, “as it provided for the chief justice of Pakistan to decide the matter if the leaders of the house and opposition were at dispute over the appointment.” This is not the first time that concerns have been raised over the court’s interference in politics.
The core question is not regarding the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, but rather what is the effect of extending the sphere of the Court’s influence to matters that belong to the public sphere or other branches of the government. The 18th amendment case is an example of the Supreme Court ruling on (and possibly against) the unanimous consensus of the elected representatives of the people.
Another example is the suo moto (of its own motion) notice taken by Lahore High Court’s Divisional Bench on the high price of sugar in the country. The superior courts in Pakistan are empowered to take suo moto cognizance of any matter the court feels is in public interest. In general terms, this power means the court can take up a matter and rule on it without anyone approaching the court. The court fixed the price of sugar at 40 Pakistani Rupees per kilogram, ignoring the market forces influencing the price. The court’s credentials in economic management are open to debate. Although driven by the best of motives, the outcome was that neither the price nor the supply stabilized. This was question for the economists and Parliament, not for the courts. Similar examples can be found in the Supreme Court declaring the levy of the Carbon Tax as invalid and the annulment of the privatization [PDF] of the Pakistan Steel Mill.
Pakistan’s political parties demonstrated earlier this year that, while negotiations may appear to be messy at times, the parties are learning how to work together to reach consensus on important issues. This learning process must be allowed to continue without interference from the courts. Pakistan’s justices may believe that they are acting in the interests of the people, but by circumventing due process and intervening in political affairs, the courts are stunting the maturation of Pakistan’s democratic system.
MQM, the political party that announced it would sit on opposition benches earlier this week announced today that it is returning to the government coalition following an agreement to defer economic reforms.
As we wrote last month, MQM’s move wasn’t a sign of a political ‘crisis’, but a natural part of coalition politics, especially in an emerging democracy where all parties are experimenting with strategies to maximize their influence.
It was notable, though rarely noted at the time, that even the PML-N – the largest opposition party – denied that the government was threatened. Unfortunately, this did not stop opportunistic headline writers from announcing the government’s imminent ‘collapse’ – predictions that a resilient government coalition continues to defy.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani announced that certain economic reforms would be deferred until consensus can be reached among the parties. While this has caused some concern among IMF economists, the decision must be considered in light of Pakistan’s political situation.
The largest opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz faction (PML-N), continues to be a vocal opponent to the reforms. If MQM and other smaller parties were to abandon the PPP in a vote of no confidence and a PML-N led coalition were to win off-year elections, the reforms would not only not pass, they would not even be taken up for consideration.
The fact that the PPP government has had to defer the proposed package of economic reforms demonstrates that the political will is simply not there to move forward with these changes at this time. That said, the PPP’s willingness to support the reforms until it threatened to upend the government demonstrates that they are serious about getting Pakistan’s tax-to-GDP ratio under control.
Pakistan is not unique in its populist (and pseudo-populist) opposition to measures intended to repair revenue gaps. People enjoy government services such as Pakistan’s subsidized fuel prices, but are not eager to part with the taxes necessary to fund them. We see the same disconnect here in the United States as Republicans and Democrats spar over how to pay for popular government programs without unpopular taxes and fees.
Unlike the United States, though, Pakistan does not enjoy the relative peace and prosperity that allows our own Congress to put off reforms. While the announcement that reforms will be deferred is a setback, it’s not a repudiation of the policy. Rather, it’s a acknowledgment that more needs to be done to bring Pakistan’s other parties on board. To this end, bringing the MQM back into the fold is the first step towards economic recovery.
Yesterday’s New York Times published an article about demonstrations by Islamist parties defending Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Salman Masood, the reporter who covered the story, called the protests “crippling” and suggested that conservative religious forces had Pakistan’s government on the run. But Masood’s report ignores fundamental points, including the fact that the strongest supporters of reform have been from the governing party and that a counter demonstration has already been scheduled for the 15th.
Salman Masood wrote that the demonstrations have put the governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) “on the retreat.” But the officials Masood quotes opposing the blasphemy law – Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab, and Sherry Rehman, Member of the National Assembly – are members of the PPP. In fact, the PPP has been the most vocal and active proponents of changing the law with President Asif Zardari repeatedly calling for the law to be reviewed.
In addition to support for reform by government officials, a group of Pakistani citizens including prominent bloggers and journalists has organized a counter-protest for January 15th as a peaceful demonstration of the nation’s large community of liberals who want to see the law amended or overturned.
From the group’s Facebook page:
For thirty years, Pakistani Muslims and non-Muslims alike have been victimized by our blasphemy laws. We all know that these laws are often grossly misused. They do not account for the intent to commit blasphemy, and are most often used to settle personal or monetary disputes. For no fault of their own, victims end up either in jail for the rest of their lives, or killed by mobs. The victims of this law are almost always poor and powerless, and have no one to speak for them.
Recent developments have brought this issue in the public eye once again. It is time to say enough is enough. For too long, one side has dominated this debate, and drowned out our voices. We must remind them that we too are citizens of this country and that we too have a right to express our opinions.
Those of us against this law will be at Karachi Press Club on Saturday, January 15 at 3:00 p.m. to peacefully protest against it. Join us, stand with us, and let your voice be heard for equality and freedom for all Pakistanis.
Blocking traffic is always easier than getting elected – something right-wing religious parties can’t seem to do in Pakistan when facing open elections. Though it’s true that the government has tempered its rhetoric about amending the law, passing a new law is often far easier than changing one that’s been on the books – especially when the laws in question are wrapped in the emotion of religion.
The outsize media attention given to right-wing groups notwithstanding, Pakistanis are ready to shed the residual traces of past dictatorships. They said so quite loudly when they elected a progressive democratic government in 2008, and they will reiterate this call for reform when they come together on January 15th to call for an end to the religious discrimination enshrined in Zia’s blasphemy laws. The Question is: Will The New York Times be listening?
Despite Chicken Little headlines declaring the government in ‘crisis,” the political negotiations in Pakistan are a natural part of parliamentary politics and, some analysts suggest, point to progress in the nation’s democracy.
The decision by the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) party to leave its seats in the federal cabinet – but remain on the treasury benches – has surprised political analysts who see the move as strategically questionable.
Leaders from the nation’s largest opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz faction (PML-N), have exchanged harsh words with the MQM following their decision. In fact, the two parties are historically less politically aligned than the MQM-PPP alliance, and many suspect that MQM, with 25 seats in parliament, would have less influence under a coalition headed by the PML-N.
Still, the government is taking MQM’s concerns quite seriously. President Zardari has forbidden party officials from speaking ill of coalition members, and has reached out to MQM chief Altaf Hussain to assure him that the PPP will address his party’s concerns. Sindh Home Minister Dr. Zulfiqar Mirza, who earlier this month accused MQM activists of perpetrating political violence in Karachi, has offered to take a back seat to ease MQM concerns.
While some suggest that the move could result in mid-term elections, that does not seem likely. Pakistani analyst Cyril Almeida notes that a no-confidence vote in the parliament is mathematically impossible without PML-N support, a position opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar has previously dismissed.
With the ongoing threat from extremist groups, a fragile – albeit improving – economy, and a struggling energy sector, one would not be surprised to see the PML-N decide to let the PPP finish its term if only to bolster their own chances in the 2013 elections.
Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi, president of the Pakistan Chamber of Commerce–USA, writes for Pakistan’s Daily Times that mid-term elections would be counterproductive at this late stage in the government’s tenure.
Mid-term elections will just be a game of musical chairs between the existing cadres of leaders but will cost the nation a lot of money and loss of productivity in the economy. There are only two years left in the term of the current government, which is not a long time to wait. During this time, the local bodies’ elections should be held so that an institution for future leaders is reinstated. These elections will be a litmus test of the nation’s choice for the next government in the province and Centre.
All things considered, it is not unusual to see internal coalition politics get messy, especially in countries with relatively young democratic systems. An editorial in today’s Dawn explains that the political dance is not unusual in coalition politics, and the way that all parties are handling themselves is encouraging.
With the PPP about a third of the way from having a majority in the National Assembly, the role of the supporting cast is crucial, and that was always going to be fertile ground for uncertainty. However, in a welcome sign that perhaps Pakistani politicians have matured somewhat, not a single political player of any significance has suggested his intention is to remove the government or perhaps even derail the democratic process.
Though the US is not a parliamentary democracy, I’m sure that President Obama can closely sympathize with his Pakistani counterpart Asif Zardari’s situation. Trying to hold together a coalition of politicians eager to demonstrate their independence and with their own political ambitions is no easy feat. That he’s managed to do so despite the challenges his government has faced is a testament not only to President Zardari’s staying power, but to an often underestimated political astuteness. As coalition partners negotiate, one things looks clear – the present government is navigating the tumultuous waters of democracy quite well.