The Primal Politics of Pakistan


By Joe Campbell
March 17th, 2009


 
The stories that have been coming out of Pakistan in the past few days have been extraordinary. It is politics being shaped by individuals at a basic and primal level, in a way only possible in an unstable nation. Just a few weeks ago, Simon Tisdall in the Guardian would write that:

Pakistan’s disintegration, if that is what is now being witnessed, is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, a riveting spectacle, and a clear and present danger to international security. But who in the world can stop it?

As President Zardari seemed to buffoonishly wield power – ham-handedly using the power of the government to sideline his opponents, resistant built up. First, he refused to honor a deal he made with his main opponent, Nawaz Sharif, to reinstate the chief justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry who had been dismissed by President Musharraf. This was especially significant as the civil society movement or the Lawyers Movement which was formed to protest this move of Musharaff’s was one of the primary factors forcing him to step down. Then – and I skip over a great deal here, Zardari closes down a television station for seemingly political reasons prompting, as The Daily Times reported:

Federal Information Minister Sherry Rehman resigned from her ministerial slot on Friday night to protest the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA)’s blocking of a private TV channel.

With Sharif and Sharif’s brother still agitating for change – specifically the reinstatement of Chaudhry – the current Supreme Court, which is seen to be in the pocket of Zardari, rules that neither Sharif nor his brother can hold any public office. Sharif and his N-League party begin to stage mass rallies to protest this decision – which then prompts Zardari to take even more drastic action. He places all of his political opponents under house arrest – for their own protection – and bans rallies. Over the weekend, Sharif breaks out of his house arrest to go to a large demonstration as Jane Perlez reports in the New York Times:

Sharif, who had planned to address the demonstration, left his house in a convoy of cars that broke through a ring of barriers, including barbed wire and parked buses that had been placed by the police.

When he arrived at the rally in Lahore, Sharif was aided by elements of the police sympathetic to him – and embraced by the crowd:

As his bulletproof four-wheel-drive vehicle entered the main thoroughfare of Lahore, it was showered with pink rose petals from the crowd, made up of lawyers, party workers and couples who came with their children to join what turned out to be a celebration of Mr. Sharif’s nerve.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik meanwhile urged all Pakistanis to refrain from joining the long march which was supposed to converge on the capital of Pakistan yesterday:

I urge all Pakistanis not to join the long march as we have credible information that enemies of Pakistan could take advantage of the situation.

Yet, despite this, people came out. They confronted the police and military who tried to break up the rallies – and the police and military turned back. According to Jane Perlez again:

The army did not stage a coup, but insisted that the government accept a compromise.

Perhaps it was this factor more than Sharif’s nerve or Zardari’s ham-handedness that prevented this from going down as power plays usually do in Pakistan – in bloody violence. Zardari agreed yesterday to meet the demands of the Lawyers Movement and Sharif – and to restore Chaudhry as Chief Justice. Sabrina Tavernise described the scene in Islamabad in the New York Times:

In the crowd, whose members included a radio announcer who was researching homosexuality and an illiterate mechanic who wore a flower pot on his head to stay cool and admitted to stealing monkeys to get by, one word was on everybody’s lips.

“Justice,” said Mr. Khan’s wife, Rubina Javed, smiling broadly. “We came for justice.”

The word was apt for the victory at hand: the restoration of the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, to his court. But others in a jubilant crowd celebrating on Mr. Chaudhry’s lawn on Monday were working from a broader interpretation…

“This movement has given an awareness to the common people in Pakistan of their rights,” said Shamoon Azhar, 26, a doctoral student at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, sitting on the lawn with a large group of his friends. “This is about awareness. It’s given people confidence. It’s shown people it can happen.”

Ashtar Ali, a corporate lawyer was quoted by Jane Perlez:

This is the first time in the history of Pakistan that the police and civil administration have defied orders by the government to control public demonstrations. The writ of the government has failed.

The big winner in all of this is – of course, Sharif, as a Pakistani columnist put it:

He understood the pulse of the country.

Yet at the same time, the basic story of the American relationship with Pakistan remains the same. Richard Holbrooke summed it up when asked whether Pakistan’s security forces were committed to rooting out terrorists:

I’ve rarely seen in my years in Washington an issue which is so hotly disputed internally by experts and intelligence officials.

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One Response to “The Primal Politics of Pakistan”

  1. Generation Green - 2parse Says:

    […] – building in intensity – and in a dramatic series of events, a key opposition leader broke out of house arrest to participate in a massive protest to force the reinstatement of Chaudhry. As a final show of determination, a series of rallies was supposed to culminate in a […]

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